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Massive open online courses will return to the University of Wisconsin at Madison next year -- or something that looks like them will, anyway. Having reviewed the results from its first round of MOOCs, the institution will offer new courses that are shorter, cover fewer topics and target Wisconsinites.

It’s a concept known as modularity. Instead of reassembling a face-to-face course, lecture by lecture, institutions are urging faculty members creating online courses (and not just MOOCs) to split coursework into modules. For example, a 15-week course on Shakespeare could be transformed into modules on his poetry, comedies, tragedies and historical plays.

“We’ve got to pick the greatest hits, as it were, of your course and find some of the material that you think, 'Boy, if [students] only have one exposure to me or my course, here are four things I want them to know,' ” said Joshua Morrill, a senior evaluator at UW-Madison.

The university will launch its second round of MOOCs in January, and the six courses in the works will in some cases be half as long -- four weeks to the first round’s six or eight.

That strategy seems to be motivated by the single-digit completion rates of the university's first MOOCs -- an outcome to which critics point as proof the courses aren’t hitting their goals, but one that supporters say is a flawed way of measuring the courses’ success.

Only 3.2 percent of the 135,602 people who signed up for UW-Madison’s MOOCs -- many of which were organized as though they were in-person or online for-credit courses -- completed the courses, according to a series of university reports.Those results aren’t unique to Wisconsin. The first MOOCs offered by Harvard and MIT, in comparison, attracted 841,687 registrations, but only 43,196, or 5.1 percent, earned a certificate of completion.

Yet the universities see more promising results in the number of partial completers. In Harvard’s and MIT’s courses, an additional 35,937 students accessed half of the course content, and 469,702 viewed at least some of it. At UW-Madison, participation tumbled after four weeks -- hence the shortened length of the new courses.

Those results “points to the need for the modularization of online classes whenever possible,” according to a report on the future of the MIT released earlier this week. “The very notion of a ‘class’ may be outdated.” (Inside Higher Ed wrote about a draft of the report last November.)

MIT and UW-Madison both envision modules could be reused across departments and colleges, potentially saving faculty members time and the institution money. MIT is even toying with the idea of using them to limit the time students spend on campus, enabling them to pursue internships outside the Boston region.

UW-Madison is working toward a different definition of modules. Morrill said faculty members there are producing the MOOCs with the goal of their benefiting Wisconsin residents -- in other words, modules that adhere to a local policy known as the “Wisconsin idea.”

“The work that we’re doing is to benefit to the state, to contribute to better life, create jobs -- just get greater overall value to the state,” Morrill said.

Attracting Wisconsinites is “hugely important,” Morrill said, especially since more than 95 percent of students in the first round of courses came from outside the state. The upcoming MOOCs therefore feature courses more likely to appeal to someone in Madison than in Mumbai. This approach may yield smaller class sizes over all, but university officials hope it will boost completion rates -- particularly among state residents.

"[Coursera’s] goals aren’t necessarily our goals,” Morrill said. But, he added, since the university’s MOOCs are hosted on Coursera, the MOOC provider still gets the traffic it wants. “We’re sort of hacking that a little bit, and we’re saying, 'O.K., we’re not going to exclude the world, but we’re doing a really targeted approach to move the needle for our own citizens.”

One course will focus on Aldo Leopold, the conservationist who once taught at UW-Madison. Another will examine the climate of the Great Lakes region. Even courses that don’t have a local spin on their content will collaborate with people and organizations in Wisconsin. “Virtual Shakespeare,” for example, will partner with theater companies in the state to shoot short documentaries.

"The goal is to bring more voices into the MOOC, rather than relying only on the voices of a few instructors, so that the expertise of a much broader community is reflected in the course," Jesse Stommel, the assistant professor of liberal studies and the arts who teaches the course, said in an email. "The measure of success for this Virtual Shakespeare MOOC (or any MOOC) is if it builds a persistent community that continues to interact after the course is over."

Such partnerships are part of a “try-before-you-buy” approach to MOOCs, said Ron Cramer, a senior learning technology consultant at UW-Madison. The university sees the courses as “a precursor to deeper learning,” he said, and it is adding opportunities to keep exploring the topics covered beyond the four weeks of the modules.

“At least to my knowledge, there hasn’t been a lot of use of MOOCs to extend beyond that MOOC space,” Cramer said. “This is our first way of doing that.”

Morrill suggested students in the Shakespeare class could attend in-depth workshops on specific plays. The Aldo Leopold course, which is geared at hunters, will include resources on producing and eating local food. Other ideas include inviting MOOC students to campus events and, perhaps, encouraging them to enroll in courses.

“People come into MOOCs for a lot of reasons, and if in fact they want to just come in and learn one thing and want to leave, that’s totally understandable,” Morrill said. “What we really want to do is help that participant in the MOOC see what they can do beyond just getting that certificate ... and move from the learning to doing something in the community.”

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