September 27, 2012

Cornell Professors Debate Future of ‘Massive’ Online Classes at University

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Emphasizing the need to join a technological revolution in higher education, faculty from other universities urged their peers to introduce Cornell to MOOCs, or massive open online courses, at a forum Thursday.

Although the University currently administers online courses for working professionals through its eCornell program, it has yet to offer MOOCs — courses open to the public, often for free, that have already attracted hundreds of thousands of students on websites owned by top institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University.

In the last few years, “leading faculty” at these universities have increasingly latched onto MOOCs — and Cornell “must” consider whether or not it wants to use them, too, said Prof. Eva Tardos, computer science, senior associate dean of the Computing and Information Science unit.

In the face of the courses’ rapid growth, it is time for Cornell to consider what role it wants MOOCs to play on its campus, Tardos said.

“Whatever you think, I strongly believe that the revolution is happening in education, and if you don’t think about it or participate in it, that’s too bad for us,” Tardos said. “I don’t know what the outcome of this revolution will be, but I certainly want to explore it.”

Though she conceded that it is still unclear exactly how MOOCs could change on-campus learning, Tardos said she sees the potential for Cornell to use them to help expand access to education worldwide.

“It aligns very well with the University’s educational mission,” Tardos said. “What these courses do is educate people who may not have the means or ability to come to campus. They might not have the ability because they’re high school kids … or because they’re far away in China or India … [but] these courses can [be accessed by] a lot of people we don’t reach.”

The benefits of MOOCs were further touted by professors from MIT and Stanford University, where MOOC lectures have already taught thousands of students everything from chemistry to cryptography online.

Prof. Anant Agarwal, engineering and computer science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, talked to Cornell faculty via a video call that was delayed by technological issues. For five minutes, Agarwal could not be heard, although his face was visible on the screen.

“This is not a good start to venturing into technology,” said one professor in the crowd.

But finally, technological issues resolved, Agarwal joked, “It’s great when online technology works.”

Agarwal said that cutting-edge technology offered through MOOCs could improve the quality of education. He said courses offered online through MIT and Harvard joint venture edX — one of the platforms on which Cornell could offer online courses to the public for free in the future — have already begun to benefit conventional on-campus courses at MIT.

For instance, he said, a student working on an assignment at 3 a.m. can ask a question and receive a “near-instant response” from a peer on edX’s worldwide forum for his or her class, rather than having to wait until the next morning for a response from the professor.

By moving some courses entirely online, campuses can also provide free online textbooks to their students, give students instant feedback on assignments and allow them to collaborate with their peers through “virtual laboratories,” Agarwal said.

In fact, online courses have proven so effective, Agarwal said, that in one survey, two-thirds of students said that they preferred watching and learning from online video over attending traditional lectures.

Like Agarwal, Prof. Daphne Koller, computer science, Stanford University, vouched for the potentially transformative effects of online courses.

By being able to answer each others’ questions on forums, students can also collaborate with hundreds of thousands of peers across the globe, Koller said, presenting opportunities for universities to harness the power of social learning.

The capacity to take advantage of peers sharing ideas — otherwise known as social learning — is a “game-changer” in revolutionizing higher education, said Chris Proulx, CEO of eCornell.

“Online learning has already been doing a lot with social learning. The difference is when you now start to do that across tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of students for the construction of peer knowledge,” Proulx said. “Courses themselves become smarter when you make tools and capabilities to take advantage of social learning.”

If and when MOOCs become a reality at Cornell, however, it is up to the faculty to direct the role they play in the classroom, administrators said.

“We faculty can and must be participating in these discussions,” said Dean of Faculty Prof. Joe Burns Ph.D. ’66, astronomy. “[Provost Kent] Fuchs has a lot of interest in this … but he said he needs to know what we want him to do.”

Original Author: Akane Otani