Penn State preparing to join worldwide trend by rolling out Massive Open Online Courses

bmilazzo@centredaily.comJanuary 26, 2013 

— Penn State is jumping on the bandwagon with other global institutions and implementing Massive Open Online Courses, otherwise known as MOOCs — noncredited free online college-level courses aimed at large-scale participation.

Vice President for Penn State Outreach Craig Weidemann said the university is in the process of starting the MOOC program that will be consistent with university priorities and reputation. He said this year would be a test year.

“It’s great for innovation and access to knowledge, but will be challenging finding student success,” he said.

Penn State faculty called MOOCs a new phenomenon that has captured the attention of higher educators in the past few years.

James Mundie, educational technology manager at Penn State World Campus, said the open-source software movement inspired MOOCs, where software developers released free versions of software applications along with the source code to the program in hopes of building a community around the product.

“In the same spirit, MOOCs are free public events that look like university courses, and often contain the same content and are taught by the same professors, open to anyone around the world,” Mundie said.

But there is one big difference between MOOCs and open source software: most providers of MOOCs do not allow people to repurpose the content. In other words, Mundie said that even though students may access it for free, the intellectual property is still owned by the organization offering it.

Students can join MOOCs through a variety of platforms including Coursera, edX and Udacity — tech companies that offer MOOCs. Universities or individual professors offer classes through these platforms, and students sign up for free to take them, said Anthony Robinson, member of the University MOOC Committee and lead faculty for Penn State’s online geospatial education programs.

The idea started last year with other initiatives across the country through the university MOOC committee.

“We had our faculty thinking about this for quite some time,” Weidemann said. “We met several times over the year on a strategic plan to implement this and want to pick courses that would help recruit people to the World Campus.”

Penn State’s World Campus is in its 15th year of existence as an online educational institute, targeting adults with more than 6,000 under- and postgraduates.

Penn State plans to announce the MOOC program to students and the public this spring, and initiate two or three classes taught by Penn State faculty, Weidemann said. The free online classes are estimated to contain up to 200,000 students.

At the end of the month, Weidemann said the committee will meet to pick classes that will both benefit Penn State faculty and students, but details on those classes would not be released.

“What we are hoping to do is to put out courses in the format that are of extremely high Penn State quality,” Mundie said. “There is a huge opportunity here to serve students through MOOCs who would otherwise never have an opportunity to study at Penn State. Putting out high quality courses allows us to serve those people and to show the world that Penn State is a great place to study and get a degree.”

But MOOCs often threaten enrollment decline at universities offering the program.

“We wouldn’t do anything intentional to hurt Penn State or negatively affect the university,” Weidemann said. “But we don’t know the long-term impact.”

“Online education has frequently caused folks to fear that resident enrollments will suffer as a result,” Robinson added. However, that has not been proven yet, he said.

“World Campus online programs at Penn State have grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade, while resident enrollments have continued to grow all the same,” Robinson said. “We’re hoping that MOOCs increase the visibility of our educational and research strengths at Penn State, which in turn will help encourage new students to come to the university in both online and resident settings.”

F or other universities that offer MOOCs, enrollment decline has not been a problem yet.

“There has been no decline of enrollment. ... If anything, MOOCs are promoting our university,” said University of Michigan professor of finance Gautam Kaul. “Our goal is to make sure we’re teaching them with the highest quality.”

Kaul has been teaching MOOC classes at Michigan since it started the program last spring. Michigan was one of the first four universities to implement MOOCs along with Stanford University, University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University.

And Kaul recommends all universities to jump on board with MOOCs as long as they can manage the program properly.

“As a professor in the digital age, it teaches you different ways to teach classes and reach out to students,” Kaul said. “If anything, this program has been largely positive in both promoting Michigan and reaching out to those who otherwise would not have the chance to study here or another top university like Penn State.”

Last Saturday, Weidemann said, a seminar was held that focused on the long-term impact of the digital revolution. And school administrators said classroom education could fall by the wayside if MOOCs begin to charge for school credit.

Kaul, Michigan’s newest special counsel for digital education initiatives disagrees.

“I think right now, education is at a premium height,” he said. “Universities in our country are the best in the world and MOOCs are the best way to show and improve that.”

But MOOCs pose pros and cons for all universities using them.

From Robinson’s perspective as a geographer, creating a MOOC has tremendous upsides. As some high school students do not have geography classes to take, going to college provides the first opportunity for geographers to highlight their science, he said.

“I’d like to see a MOOC focused on digital mapping and geolocation, which now permeates every facet of our contemporary lives,” Robinson said. “There is a huge professional industry around this area and Penn State has enjoyed a reputation as a world leader in geography.”

Robinson said a MOOC would provide them the opportunity to highlight this strength and to teach large audiences about their science that they otherwise would not be able to reach.

But Penn State’s greatest concern is the unknown, Weidemann said.

“Once we know how to handle the program to the best of our ability, then we’ll continue to work with it to improve the institution,” he said.

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