November 18, 2012

Cornell Nears Decision on Offering Massive Open Online Courses

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A faculty committee has been tasked with recommending whether or not Cornell should offer its own MOOCs, massive open online courses that have been growing in popularity, according to Provost Kent Fuchs.

Fuchs, who will make the final decision, said that, although no official decision has been made yet, he believes that the University will eventually offer MOOCs to the public. He stressed he hopes all members of the community — not just the faculty committee — voice their opinions about the role MOOCs should play at Cornell.

“Likely after [the group of faculty] make the recommendation, we will ask many others to give their comments on the decision … student, trustees and faculty,” Fuchs said. “I very much want the faculty to lead the process and not have it be a simple administrative decision.”

The committee is also considering whether or not the University should join a consortium, or a group of colleges partnering to offer MOOCs. Some leading MOOC consortiums include Udacity, which offers 14 online courses; EdX, which offers nine courses through MIT, UC Berkeley and Harvard University; and Coursera, which offers 197 courses from 33 universities.

Unlike traditional online courses, which charge tuition, carry credit and limit enrollment to give students the opportunity to communicate with instructors, MOOCs are usually free, give a student no credit and enroll a large number of students. MOOCs can offer students a way to expand their learning, Fuchs said.

“I would encourage students to participate,” Fuchs said. “Some of the material may be similar to what they are taking now at a course at Cornell and it can supplement what they are taking here … [as a way] to verify what a student has learned and his or her performance in the class.”

Fuchs emphasized that it would be the faculty, not the administration, to help launch MOOCs at Cornell.

“I do expect that our participation [in MOOCs] will be based on faculty interest, and I am certain there will be a number of faculty that will very much want to participate, because they would want to have their courses available to tens or hundred of thousands of students worldwide,” he said.

One member of the committee, Prof. David Easley, economics, said he would be interested in teaching a MOOC based on a course that he currently co-teaches with Prof. Jon Kleinberg ’93, computer science, and Prof. Eva Tardos, computer science. Easley said that he sees the potential to enhance learning through MOOCs, which offer students an opportunity to absorb material before attending class.

“I think that MOOCs have great potential both for students on campus and for those not on campus … In this model, students watch videos before coming to class and then part of the classroom time is used to engage students in active learning,” Easley said.

He noted, however, that “one potential drawback of MOOCs for on-campus students is that some faculty time may be diverted to teaching MOOCs.”

Fuchs said that although some University faculty have brought up points of opposition to the implementation of MOOCs, many of the faculty have been persuaded of their benefits.

“By talking to colleagues at other universities that have already joined the consortium, [the faculty] have learned that it takes an investment of time and energy, but it is feasible,” he said.

Dean of Faculty Prof. Joe Burns Ph.D. ’66, astronomy, who organized a faculty forum on the topic of MOOCs in September, said that MOOCs may enable students who have been raised in a digital age to better respond to new modes of education.

“Paradoxically, the greater use of digital technology should allow faculty to introduce new schemes of engaging students in a more personal way,” he said. “Because of the enormous databases, [there will be] additional opportunities to understand how and what students learn.”

This interest in researching how students learn has caught the attention of the American Council on Education, which announced Wednesday that it would launch a wide-ranging research and evaluation effort to examine the academic potential of MOOCs.

Although students may benefit from enrolling in MOOCs, Burns said that MOOCs also have their drawbacks.

“It’s possible that students will become more isolated from one another. Much of one’s college education comes from one’s peers and a few deep interactions with faculty,” he said.

Some faculty are also skeptical of “whether this is in itself a move by the administration just to generate more revenue,” Fuchs said.

But the University does not want to pursue MOOCs to raise money, Fuchs said.

“My view is that we don’t want to lose money; we want it funded, but we are not doing it to make money. We are doing it to become more effective as educators and to grow the visibility of Cornell and to help the students that are here already,” he said.

According to Fuchs, MOOCs are a great way to gather more publicity for the University because students worldwide would see Cornell faculty through the open courses.

“[MOOCs are] a way to help other parts of the world –– students that may not have the financial capacity to come here … or who might not be admitted here … to take a Cornell course,” he said. “It is doing good for society worldwide.”

Original Author: Jonathan Swartz