October 3, 2013

Cornell Will Launch Four edX MOOCs in Spring

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Next spring, seven Cornell professors will reach beyond Ithaca to teach hundreds of thousands of students located anywhere in the world with an Internet connection.

The professors will be teaching Cornell’s first four massive open online courses through edX, a Harvard and MIT-founded platform that offers university-level courses worldwide for free, the University announced Wednesday. The four MOOCs, which range in subject matter from the history of American capitalism to an exploration of modern surveillance, were selected out of 15 proposed courses.

“I think it’s about time we got in the game,” said Dean of Faculty Joe Burns Ph.D. ’66, astronomy. “It’s pretty clear that these courses are going to be an important part of the education landscape moving forward. Every university will need experts in MOOCs, so we’re excited to be offering our own MOOCs in that regard.”

Administrators hailed the advent of Cornell’s first MOOCs, saying the University’s next step into the online education movement reflects its fundamental mission of giving back to the community.

“Since Cornell University’s start nearly 150 years ago, the University has embraced its land-grant mission. Now, with the advent of MOOCs, Cornell adds progression and more modernity to its mission to serve a broad, even global, community of learners,” said Laura Brown, senior vice provost for undergraduate education and chair of the University’s Distance Learning Committee, in a University press release.

In addition to helping Cornell fulfill its mission of educating not only New York State but also the global community, MOOCs will help elevate Cornell’s profile among prospective students, Brown said. They will also present an opportunity for Cornell to be innovative in its teaching — refining online education in a way that will have “a wide potential impact within and beyond Cornell,” she said in the press release.

Even as Cornell prepares to roll out its first MOOCs with optimism, skeptics of the online education movement are expressing concerns about MOOCs. A number of professors, education experts and even students around the U.S. have said that online courses, however well-structured, cannot permit the exchanges between peers or students and professors that traditional courses can.

For one, the completion rates of MOOCs have been dismal. Although studies on MOOCs’ effectiveness are limited, a number of experts studying online education have estimated that less than 10 percent of students enrolled in a MOOC will finish the course.

Some professors have also bashed MOOC providers’ claim that they are breaking down barriers to education worldwide by teaching courses online.

“Notwithstanding the inherent goodness of altruism, it is sad to see how educators who see MOOCs as a means of educating students across the world also seem to lack the willingness to consider seriously what happens when thousands of students constituting a vast spectrum of proficiency levels and academic backgrounds try to catch up with one’s attempt to educate the world primarily through video-recorded lectures,” Prof. Ghanashyam Sharma, writing and rhetoric, State University of New York at Stony Brook, said July 15 in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Despite such criticisms, dozens of universities across the nation have launched MOOCs. edX, the nonprofit consortium Cornell has partnered with, has at least 29 institutions — including Georgetown University, the California Institute of Technology and MIT — to its name. It has also reached more than one million users since its founding in May 2012.

MOOCs proponents add that the massive scale of the courses allow universities to learn more about how students learn and how they can most effectively teach students.

As for Cornell, Burns said the University is still early in its exploration of MOOCs. It is too soon to tell what role MOOCs will play in the Cornell education over the long term, he said.

“This is really just a first foot in the water. We haven’t gotten deep enough to start swimming, and faculty are going to need to guide this effort and move it forward,” he said.

As the seven professors forge forward and refine their MOOCs, the University is calling for faculty to propose their own ideas for online learning.

Provost Kent Fuchs has offered faculty three options possibilities for their involvement with distance-teaching: submitting proposals for a MOOC offered through edX in the 2014-15 year, applying for a grant to support an “innovative online or distance-learning project” that is independent of edX, or developing online courses or modules on edX’s Edge platform, which is geared toward small, private audiences.

The University plans to announce which proposals for online courses and distance-learning innovations it has accepted by Feb. 15, 2014.