Free for the Taking

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Fall 2014

By Marla Holt, Illustration by Tomasz Walenta

f2014_freefor_thumbnail306Massive open online courses—MOOCs—were heralded as a revolution in higher education. That hasn’t been the case yet, but what the University of Minnesota has learned so far could help revolutionize MOOCs.

The question “what is food?” might garner a handful of different responses when asked of a few dozen students in a seminar. But when Jason Hill asked that question in an online course he was teaching, thousands answered.

Hill, a University of Minnesota professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering, posed the question in a massive open online course (MOOC), a free, not-for-credit course available to anyone with an Internet connection. Hill’s MOOC on food sustainability, which he taught in spring 2013, drew nearly 30,000 students from 137 countries worldwide.

Online education has been around for a long time, but free classes on a massive scale exploded onto the higher education scene in 2012 with the development of MOOC providers such as edX and Coursera. These software platforms host MOOCs created by universities and allow for huge enrollments without straining the servers of each individual institution. Coursera, for instance, partners with 110 institutions, including the University of Minnesota, which began offering MOOCs in early 2013 as part of its strategic efforts to improve teaching and learning through technology.

The New York Times declared 2012 the “Year of the MOOC,” calling them the “revolution that has higher education gasping.” MOOCs were expected to address two long-standing issues: cost and access for the underserved. “MOOCs were proclaimed as the game changer for higher education,” says Christopher Cramer, a University of Minnesota chemistry professor and associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Science and Engineering who taught one of the U’s pilot MOOCs.

But the revolution hasn’t happened. Critics have expressed dismay with the low number of students who complete the courses, as well as MOOCs’ inability to effectively engage a diverse group of students. A recent study by Harvard and MIT found that 5 percent of the people registered for the first 17 courses offered through edX earned a certificate of completion and only about 3 percent of total participants were from underserved areas. The study also showed that 66 percent of all participants, and 74 percent of those who completed a course, held a bachelor’s degree or higher. Already, one provider, Udacity, has begun moving away from courses in traditional academic disciplines toward those focused more on professional development.

And yet MOOCs have proven to be promising for the U, says University Provost Karen Hanson (B.A. ’70). “Our partnership with Coursera provides us with the opportunity to explore innovative teaching methods, to bring education to people worldwide, and to share the expertise of Minnesota’s faculty members,” she explains. “We maintain control of our intellectual property and use the materials we create and lessons we learn through teaching MOOCs in our traditional classrooms.” Additionally, Hanson says the U’s engagement with MOOCs has “sparked lively discussions about pedagogy and what works and what doesn’t.”

Cramer, for example, has twice taught statistical molecular thermodynamics as a MOOC, with 700 students completing the course the first time around. For its second iteration, he coordinated its launch with his spring 2014 course so that University students could use the MOOC’s content as an added resource.

A MOOC’s content generally is presented in video format, most often as a short lecture or presentation from instructors. The courses may include online discussion forums, readings and other assignments, and exams. Instructors provide feedback electronically. If a student completes the course, he or she receives a certificate of accomplishment signed by the professor. For a small fee, students can establish a “keystroke signature” that proves their identity and enables some level of proctoring to reduce cheating on exams and assignments. Those students can earn a verified certificate that is endorsed by the University.

Hill’s MOOC, called Sustainability of Food Systems: A Global Life Cycle Perspective, was among the first batch of MOOCs developed by the University. To create content, Hill invited numerous colleagues to participate in videotaped discussions organized around 15 questions that consider the global food supply chain and its economic, environmental, and social consequences. Students interacted in forum discussions, read case studies, and completed assignments related to the same questions.

A MOOC Sampler Visit to learn more about or enroll in the 12 MOOCs currently taught by University of Minnesota professors. In addition to the courses offered by Konstan, Hill, and Cramer, options include Creative Problem Solving, Fundamentals of Fluid Power, and Social Epidemiology.

Nearly 30,000 students signed up, including people with graduate degrees in food science, people working in politics and at federal agencies, and people whose only association with food is that they eat it. About 16,000 of those who signed up participated in some aspect of the course and 1,500 earned a certificate of completion.

Hill estimates he spent about 350 hours creating and teaching the course, but he says it was well worth the effort to interact with a global community of learners. “I’ve got a better pulse on how people the world over feel about these issues, and that in turn has helped me to be a better teacher and researcher,” he says. “I incorporate the materials and the global perspective I learned from the MOOC community into my classes at the U. Hopefully the course helps the University gain wider visibility because people will see that we do good work in fields related to food.”

Joseph Konstan, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, taught Introduction to Recommender Systems concurrently as a MOOC and an innovative hybrid graduate-level course. The University students enrolled in the for-credit course received lectures, assignments, and exams online via the MOOC with the added benefit of face-to-face interaction with instructors. Question-and-answer sessions offered in-person for the credited course were videotaped and posted online for MOOC students to view.

Konstan and a colleague measured student learning by administering pre-and post-completion surveys and knowledge tests. They found that students retained a significant amount of content and could answer challenging questions several months after completion. This was true both for students who were fully online and those who enrolled in the hybrid version, regardless of gender, age, and other factors.

“We also learned that class content delivered online is a pretty useful format for on-campus students,” Konstan says. “It offers flexibility that students like and is very helpful for students whose first language isn’t English.”

Nevertheless, Konstan says, it would be a mistake to assume that MOOCs alone are a replacement for enrollment in a quality undergraduate or graduate program. “On-campus learning provides much more interaction and personal feedback than is possible in a MOOC,” he says. “Laboratory and project-based courses provide an intensive level of support that allow students to personalize their learning.”

The University will continue to encourage professors who are interested in offering MOOCs to do so, Hanson says. “Right now it’s a coalition of the willing. Our faculty members are engaged in research and move with the cutting edge of their fields. This is just another teaching space for professors to explore if they are interested in it.”

Just as importantly, it’s a way for more people the world over to benefit from the teaching available at the University of Minnesota.


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