On Campus MOOCs

May 1, 2014

After more than two years in the cloud, Coursera’s massive open online courses will this summer make landfall at Dominican University of California, which will host the MOOC provider’s first Learning Hub at a U.S. institution.

Dominican is part of Coursera’s latest wave of hubs -- physical locations scattered across the globe where MOOC students can meet in person to collaborate and, in some cases, receive in-person tutoring from course facilitators familiar with the content. The program is a product of the MOOC provider’s partnership with the U.S. Department of State and a number of educational organizations in countries such as India, Kenya and the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, among others. The New York Public Library will host a second domestic hub. 

Since their launch in November, the hubs have made a case for a more hands-on approach to teaching MOOC content. Completion rates among students who participate in them range between 30 and 100 percent, Coursera reported, compared to the dismal (and much-debated) 6.8 percent average rate seen across all of the courses offered by Coursera’s partner institutions. More than half of the hubs are located in emerging countries, providing students there with free Internet access.

Dominican joins the program for a different reason, President Mary B. Marcy said in a statement. The university's participation “comes as traditional brick-and-mortar institutions -- particularly smaller liberal arts colleges and universities -- seek ways to use technology to offer a fresh response to areas of significant concern, specifically cost, access, and quality,” she said.

Coursera does not pay its partners to establish a hub, and discourages partners from charging a participation fee. Dominican, a private institution in San Rafael, Calif., will therefore use funding from the Teagle Foundation, which supports undergraduate education in arts and sciences. The university is one in a group of California-based institutions that received a $25,000 grant in February to explore how online instruction can be used in hybrid courses, including “high-touch” settings such as first-year seminars. Others institutions in the group will look at technologies such as distributed open collaborative courses, or DOCCs.

“We need to think about technologically mediated instruction generally,” said Hanna Rodriguez-Farrar, Dominican’s senior adviser for strategy and planning. “One of the big issues around technology is that it’s a tool for learning. It’s not learning in and of itself... What we need is to improve student learning. Does it mean using MOOCs? Does it mean using DVDs? What can we do to improve student learning across the board?”

At Dominican, “Learning Hub” equals classroom. Beginning in June, Rodriguez-Farrar will host weekly 90-minute sessions on “Understanding Research Methods,” a MOOC produced by the University of London. She said the university hopes to attract about 25 students in total, from high school students interested in research to adults looking for professional development opportunities. As though they were taking the MOOC online, the students won’t receive any academic credit.

“It’s hard to find a community of research,” Rodriguez-Farrar said. “The other piece of this hub is that it becomes a learning community.”

As Dominican made its announcement Wednesday morning, speakers at an event titled “Hacking the University” in Washington, D.C., inadvertently made the case for the sort of blended approach the university is piloting.

“Most of the online courses that currently exist -- including the MOOCs that have received so much attention over the last couple of years -- largely take advantage simply of ... broadcasting educational words, sounds and images at a scale and a cost without precedent,” said Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation.

That’s no small accomplishment, he conceded, but added that those courses have yet to make the point that technology is dramatically improving the quality of education.

“But I believe they will,” Carey continued, “because modern information technology allows for unprecedented interactivity and interpersonal communication at scale -- the formation of communities of learners of a global size.”

Carey was followed by Robert Wright, a visiting lecturer at Princeton University, who joked about the “psychological toll” of seeing only 2,000 students out of 59,000 enrolled complete the midterm assignment of a MOOC on "Buddhism and Modern Psychology" he recently taught.

Wright spoke about the importance of engagement  -- both for students and instructors. “As for what keeps students coming back -- again, it’s a lot of things, and it includes a sense of interaction with the other students and with the professor,” he said.

Dominican’s status as a Learning Hub past the summer has yet to be determined, Rodriguez-Farrar said. After the six-week session is completed and the Teagle grant exhausted, the pilot may end up as an experiment of how to use MOOC content as a textbook replacement.

“One of the major things that people need to remember is that content is content,” Rodriguez-Farrar said. “Teaching is not content.... Teaching is about critical thinking, the curation of content, the knowing of understanding what’s good content versus bad content and the analysis of content. That’s the stuff where learning happens.”

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