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TMCNet:  U. Va. branching out with online classes

[January 14, 2013]

U. Va. branching out with online classes

Jan 14, 2013 (The Virginian-Pilot - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- On Tuesday, Philip Zelikow will hold the opening session of his spring-term course "The Modern World: Global History Since 1760" at the University of Virginia.
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But thousands of students far from Charlottesville will have had their first taste of his class online by then.

Zelikow's is the university's first MOOC -- or massive open online course -- the latest wave of technological innovation in higher education. U.Va. has previously offered online classes to its students. But "The Modern World" will be available for free, without credit, to anyone around the world who signs up for it through the for-profit Coursera online network.

As of the middle of last week, 35,000 people had registered with Coursera for Zelikow's class, he said.

U.Va. is providing four more MOOCs to the California-based Coursera this semester. U.Va. business professor Edward Hess said enrollment in his "Grow to Greatness" course has topped 60,000.

Companies like Coursera say the classes will increase the reach and decrease the cost of education. Participating universities could gain prestige and increase the recognition of star professors. But the effectiveness of MOOCs has yet to be verified. Nor has their profit-making potential been substantiated, though leaders of such companies as Coursera foresee financial dividends for the universities eventually.

U.Va. has not provided Coursera money and doesn't expect to reap revenue from the five courses, said James Hilton, a university vice president and chief information officer. Neither do the professors.

The big winners will be students at U.Va., he predicted. Professors will use their experiences with Coursera to improve the courses they teach at the university.

"We consider this to be a great experiment," Hilton said. "We see it as a vehicle for reinventing our face-to-face teaching, as well as projecting out to the world." Zelikow, a professor of history and associate dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, said his students will see immediate benefits. Those taking his "Modern World" class at U.Va. will view the online videos he has provided to Coursera. So during the times when he would have given lectures, he will engage the students in discussions. And sessions with graduate teaching assistants, once devoted to discussions, will focus on research projects.

"We can explode the now-ancient lecture hall model," said Zelikow, who acknowledged that he's not one of the "tech geeks" at U.Va. "It is going to be a much more interesting and powerful class than it was before." Physics professor Louis Bloomfield transformed his lecture class, "How Things Work," a popular option among U.Va.'s non-science majors, for Coursera. Like Zelikow, he plans to use the Coursera videos when he teaches the class during the 2013-14 school year.

Usually, "it's very hard to do falling balls well in the classroom," he said. "I've got no room to work; you can't slow them down." In the Coursera video, Bloomfield dropped a camera in the air along with the balls. "You can see them hovering in front of the camera; they're just falling together.

"I can talk all I like," said Bloomfield, who has taught the course since 1991. "But the idea that a picture is worth 1,000 words -- there really is something to that." U.Va. is the first Virginia school to enter into a partnership with Coursera. Its progress in online education, though, was questioned in the firing last year of President Teresa Sullivan. In a statement outlining her concerns, Helen Dragas, the rector of U.Va.'s Board of Visitors, praised MOOCs and other technological experiments at universities such as Stanford and MIT.

"The University of Virginia has no centralized approach to dealing with this potentially transformational development," said Dragas, president and CEO of The Dragas Cos., a real estate firm in Virginia Beach.

The board reinstated Sullivan on June 26 after a fierce outcry. U.Va. announced its plan to participate in Coursera on July 17. A news release from the university that day said the agreement "had been in the works for several months." Dragas said in The Washington Post after the Coursera announcement: "I think it's fair to say that work was going on that some members of senior administration may not have known about." She declined last week to discuss her previous critiques. But she spoke enthusiastically of U.Va.'s entry into the Coursera network, saying it could improve academics and cut costs.

"It's generally uncharted territory," Dragas said, but "as a flagship institution, we have to be leaders in exploring the future. I think the board is really pleased that the university is experimenting with this. We're looking forward to hearing from the academic leadership as to the experiences of this year's endeavors." Hilton said U.Va. officials in February would begin reviewing the results to decide whether to continue or expand its presence in Coursera.

Nearly one-third of college students took an online class in the fall of 2011, according to a recent study by the Babson Survey Research Group. But fewer than 3 percent of schools offer a MOOC.

Coursera, launched in April by two computer scientists at Stanford, is one of the largest providers. Its website lists 33 partner universities -- including Duke, Ohio State, Princeton and the University of Michigan -- offering 213 courses with more than 2.2 million students enrolled.

Coursera did not respond to two emails from The Virginian-Pilot this month.

A group from U.Va.'s Darden School of Business, including Hess and the dean, Robert Bruner, visited Coursera's office in Mountain View, Calif., in early June. The team, Hess said, was "very impressed" with the founders' pedigrees and the capital they had amassed. The New York Times reported last week that it totaled $22 million.

"I said to the dean, 'We could reach more small businesses who would never be able to come to Darden by doing something like this,' " said Hess, a professor of business administration and Batten executive in residence. "It could help create jobs and help people accomplish their dreams." Zelikow's Coursera class will begin Monday and Hess' two weeks later. The others -- Bloomfield's course, Michael Lenox's "Foundations of Business Strategy" and Mitchell Green's philosophy class, "Know Thyself" -- will start in March.

The videos will be released in phases during the courses. Students can view them when they want. The Coursera classes will be less demanding than their counterparts at U.Va. The exams on Coursera will consist almost entirely of multiple choice questions; at the university, the courses often require students to write research papers or essays.

For some professors, though, Coursera obligations will expand their workloads.

Bloomfield is taking a long-delayed paid research leave this semester to finish his work for Coursera. He estimated that it would take him 500 hours "to get the whole thing assembled." He said the physics department will probably provide an adjunct teacher primarily to manage the course's discussion board.

Hess said the videos took him much less time, but he doesn't know how much time he will need to monitor and contribute to the discussion forum.

The method has its drawbacks, Bloomfield said. He cited reports that 90 percent of students who enroll in MOOCs don't finish them and concerns about cheating. "What probably has to happen before any university gives credit for online work is some way of vetting the testing in a controlled situation, where you know the student is who they say they are." And the lack of live interaction troubles him. At U.Va., Bloomfield said, "when students ask me a question, I can rearrange my own lecture around that question. This is going to be a stiffer, less dynamic class." Yet almost in the next breath, Bloomfield envisioned MOOCs upgrading the quality of classes if universities use videos of "the best person in the world" for each subject.

"Some people's jobs should be threatened by this. Mediocre lecturers who don't interact with students -- that should end that." Research on the benefits of online education is mixed, and even universities with online experience express hesitancy about MOOCs, or massive open online courses.

The U.S. Department of Education, reviewing studies of online learning in 2010, concluded that "students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face interaction." But the studies focused on K-to-12 education. And most involved few students, said Shanna Smith Jaggars, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College.

Jaggars examined the experiences of more than 150,000 community college students in Virginia and Washington state and found that those who took online classes were less likely to continue their education or receive a degree. She summarized a major complaint from the online students: "I feel like I have a hard time understanding what I'm supposed to do and getting that information from my instructor." That research, Jaggars said, makes her wonder about the effectiveness of MOOCs: "The community college students we talked to seemed to place a lot of value on there being an actual person who had a relationship with them. It seems to me in MOOCs that's what they're taking out of the equation." Carlos Campo, president of Regent University, describes Regent as "primarily online." Forty percent of its 6,000 students have taken only online courses, and an additional 20 percent have taken at least one. "We think Coursera will have a role to play," Campo said, but Regent probably wouldn't consider joining it until it established a credentialing process to verify the students' work.

Coursera announced Wednesday that students in five courses -- none from the University of Virginia -- could receive a "Verified Certificate" if they provide ID and complete the classes.

Administrators at Old Dominion University and Virginia Tech said they still thought it best to go it alone in the online world. "What we're about is world-class, tenured faculty teaching courses," said Andy Casiello, associate vice president for distance learning at Old Dominion, where registrations in Internet classes exceeded 19,000 in the 2011-12 school year. "It's not about 75 TAs (teaching assistants) poring through message boards of students." Tech reported that registration in e-courses totaled nearly 25,000 in the last school year. "Virginia Tech is definitely an institution that likes the do-it-yourself approach," said Peter Macedo, director for distance and distributed learning. "We have the resources to do it here, and we can choose to do it on a scale that's appropriate to our mission." Philip Walzer, 757-222-3864,phil.walzer@pilotonline.com ___ (c)2013 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at pilotonline.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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