University wary to adopt free online courses

by Aliya Karim

Administrators are skeptical about the trajectory of online education after a startup company made a splash last month by offering free online courses taught by universities’ top professors.

Udemy, a for-profit company that allows users to create and sell courses, tapped into professors’ knowledge base with the launch of The Faculty Project Jan. 26. Twelve professors at universities like Vanderbilt, Northwestern and Colgate have developed free courses in subjects ranging from public health to Russian literature and music.

The Udemy courses – which are offered for no academic credit – are presented through a combination of media, often including video mash-ups in which the professor is seen talking and outlining graphs next to a presentation. Students can post comments and questions under the lectures to which professors might respond.

GW professors are not offering any courses through the project, which cost about $500 each to develop, director of The Faculty Project Tim Parks said. The company has to select professors to participate.

Academic administrators have yet to jump on board with free online courses, citing their costly upkeep as a deterrent.

Provost Steven Lerman said the University is looking closely into the online education marketplace, which “has a lot of different models floating around,” including Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare, which Lerman helped launch 10 years ago when he was a professor there. After a decade of offering free lecture videos to students around the world, MIT will start granting certificates to students who take the courses this spring in a new program called MITx.

“The hard question is how do you sustain those [courses]. Even if you get some money to help do it at first, there’s a care and feeding cost to these things,” Lerman said. “The courses have to be updated, certainly if you want to do something like give examinations to students and give them certificates.”

The University is making strides in offering more hybrid courses – taught partly in the classroom and partly online – as a way to mitigate dwindling classroom space and the pinch of the city-imposed population cap for on-campus student enrollment. GW also offers 60 degree and certificate programs that use a standard distance learning model where students never have to set foot on campus.

To keep up with the expenses of developing online options and help subsidize free course materials, some universities rely on grants or donations.

Stephen Ehrmann, vice provost for teaching and learning, said the separation between GW and elite institutions that are taking up free online education models comes from the significant grants pulled in yearly from foundations.

“GW has no plans to offer free online non-credit courses comparable to the ones offered by MIT and Stanford,” Ehrmann said. “When we get large gifts or foundation support, I’d like to see us use it to improve the education of GW students who are working hard to earn a degree,” instead of outside students seeking free online courses, he said.

Likening free online courses to “public television or the New York Public Library,” Ehrmann said, “You have to have a lot of money to offer them. If you can do it, it can be a real public service.”

Especially as tuition costs are spotlighted nationwide, Robert Garland, a Colgate professor who is teaching ancient Greek religion through Udemy, said no-cost courses open doors for people who cannot otherwise afford higher education.

“This is an important issue for all institutions of higher learning, that online learning is here to stay. What format classes will be in and how they’ll impact higher learning is not clear at this moment,” Garland said. “I certainly believe in trying to promote learning to a wider group of people.”

Other online education issues, including the costs of courses, will be on the docket for GW's six-month-old Teaching and Learning Collaborative this spring, the advisory board’s lead faculty member Rahul Simha said.

The 19-person board was created to examine teaching strategies toward boosting student engagement in the classroom.

“It’s exciting that today’s technology allows certain kinds of scaling and cost efficiencies, so institutions of higher education need to figure out how to make use of that,” Simha, who is also a computer science professor, said.

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