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UT Looking to Make More of Massive Online Courses

At the University of Texas System, "massive open online courses" are being reimagined. University leaders believe that the shift will provide them with a more effective tool in meeting their goals.

University of Texas at Austin professor Michael Webber discusses the next steps for his Energy 101 massive open online course during a meeting with the design team at UT-Austin on Oct. 13, 2014.

In Texas political circles, massive open online courses — commonly known as MOOCs — have enjoyed a resurgence. Officials have praised the typically free college classes, available to anyone with Internet access, as a crucial component in the future of higher education.

Last month, Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, called on colleges to offer credit for such courses. Later, after a meeting of the House Higher Education Committee on the topic, state Rep. Dan Branch, a Dallas Republican and the panel’s chairman, said he was “more convinced that high-quality online content will improve and ultimately reduce the cost of education.”

In the state’s academic circles, however, such courses are being reimagined, and a focus that was so prevalent two years ago is giving way to other priorities that university leaders believe will be more effective in meeting their goals.

“I think MOOCs have been helpful and an important catalyst, but they have also been a distraction,” said Harrison Keller, the University of Texas at Austin’s vice provost of higher-education policy and research.

Two years ago, the University of Texas System was the first of the state’s public higher-education institutions to jump on the bandwagon. The system invested $5 million in edX, a nonprofit provider of such courses.

Gene Powell, then the UT System’s chairman of the board, said the decision would further the system’s efforts to raise graduation rates and reduce higher-education costs.

The system invested an additional $1.5 million in the development of courses for edX at UT-Austin, which rolled out its initial offerings last fall. About $250,000 also went to the University of Texas at Arlington, which will unveil its first edX course next week. The system initially signaled that edX courses might be offered for credit, but that has yet to happen.

Rice University also offers courses through edX, as well as a for-profit called Coursera. The University of Houston System announced that it would begin offering courses through Coursera this year. 

Such online courses have suffered backlash, both in Texas and nationally. Most individuals signing up for courses do not complete them — completion rates for UT-Austin’s first four massive open online courses ranged from about 1 percent to 13 percent — and those who finished tended to be individuals already with high levels of educational attainment.

James Hallmark, vice chancellor for the Texas A&M University System, which has yet to offer such courses, said his system’s caution “looks like profound wisdom.”

“A lot of people invested a lot of money only to find out it doesn’t work that well,” Hallmark said. 

With about 5,000 students completing the course out of roughly 44,000 who signed up, the most popular massive online course at UT-Austin was “Energy 101,” which cost more than $400,000 to produce initially.

Calling the class a success, professor Michael Webber is preparing to teach it again and to create another massive course on thermodynamics.

Less than a third of students who took his course were from the United States. At least 60 percent already had earned at least a bachelor’s degree.

Webber said the value of such courses had changed.

“I think the hype was that MOOCs are going to replace colleges, and then there was that fizzle because they weren’t there yet,” he said. “But they haven’t gone away, and they aren’t going to go away, because they do have the potential to replace textbooks.”

All the videos and multimedia elements from the “Energy 101” course, along with roughly 350 pages of text, can be downloaded as an interactive application. Webber believes that the application will soon have assessment capabilities that are not available in either textbooks or the online course.

Unlike a book, Webber’s team can update the application anytime. The $50 price tag is also significantly less than a new textbook, and the proceeds return directly to the institution. “Everyone wins,” he said.

Other edX courses offered by UT-Austin have been released in a more standard electronic book format. For his thermodynamics course, Webber plans to make the application first and then turn that into a massive online course.

Citing Webber as an example, Keller said faculty should start focusing on creating digital content that is platform-agnostic and can be repurposed online and in classrooms.

Keller said a colleague referred to his vision of a repository of digital content, from which faculty could piece courses together, as “a new academic D.J. culture.”

“I love the metaphor,” Keller said. “The issues that come up about intellectual property, fair use and how you remix things for different audiences, it actually fits pretty well for the kinds of issues that come up.”

While it still encourages campuses to experiment with such courses, and expects to release additional offerings through edX, the UT System is not providing additional financing for massive online course development, officials said this week.

Marni Baker Stein, the chief innovation officer of the system’s Institute for Transformational Learning, which oversees its MOOC initiatives, said it determined that getting students to graduate required innovation on a larger scale.

Next year, the institute will start a “middle school to medical school” initiative to redesign curriculums that use technology to better provide younger students with the necessary skills to ultimately become physicians. A similar project is planned for engineering education. Steven Mintz, the executive director, told lawmakers the institute would invest $10 million into such initiatives in the next fiscal year.

The approach to massive online courses is changing at edX, as well. Kathy Pugh, the company’s vice president of education services, said edX is experimenting with college prep courses for high school students and continuing education courses for professionals. She said those concerned about completion rates were “focusing on an old paradigm for a new audience.”

EdX is also rethinking the structure of courses. Pugh noted that both instructors and students seemed to respond well to courses shorter than a traditional college semester.

Janet Walkow, a UT-Austin professor who ran an already shorter-than-usual eight-week online course about drug development, intends to break that course into two four-week courses. She is also working on turning some of the content created for the course into an interactive game.

“The MOOC was a good starting point. It’s a lot of work, and if you don’t have a strategy, you kind of lose the value,” she said. 

Disclosure: The Texas A&M University System, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Texas at Arlington, Rice University and the University of Houston are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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