First steps toward online revolution

by Catherine Barnao

Margaret Soltan, an associate professor of English, teaches a massive open online course on poetry. She videotapes her lectures for thousands of students.
Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Margaret Soltan, an associate professor of English, teaches a massive open online course on poetry. She videotapes her lectures for thousands of students.

GW is on the verge of joining an online education revolution, following in the footsteps of elite universities that have over the past year launched hundreds of free online classes – open to anyone with computer access.

The massive open online courses, or MOOCs, include videos and slides on topics ranging from philosophy to nutrition, and have elicited tens of thousands of sign-ups from around the world. Despite universal uncertainties about their financial stability and academic quality, the University is making headway on a slow rollout of the non-credit courses that would serve as GW's first MOOCs, a top official said last week.

What is a MOOC?

A MOOC, or massive open online course, is a class that can be taken by anyone with an internet connection. It’s typically free to sign up for MOOCs, which are often taught through videos, slides and message boards by top professors at elite universities. For example, even as a GW student, you can sign up for a MOOC on startup engineering taught by a Stanford professor.

Why are they so popular?

MOOCs have exploded in popularity in just over a year, partly because they offer free or cheap learning opportunities as opposed to $50,000-a-year schools. Almost every top university, including Stanford, Georgetown and Harvard, has jumped on board. Their rise has been pumped up primarily by three companies – Coursera, EdX and Udacity – which have partnered with top universities that are looking to expand their brands and reputations.

Can you get credit for taking a MOOC?

Not yet. Some MOOC providers send a certificate to people who complete the course and pass online exams, but they don’t count toward official university credits. That could soon change though. The American Council on Education, an umbrella group for higher education, will explore this year how MOOCs can be applied for credit, possibly as a way to stem the ballooning cost of college.

Administrators, including University President Steven Knapp, have in the past voiced skepticism as to whether it worth diverting resources from tuition-drawing programs to produce free courses. But GW’s recently hired online learning czar said he is making progress toward starting MOOCs.

“What we are exploring is the possibility of creating a handful of courses that would build on distinctive strengths that GW already has and would be likely to appeal to a larger national and global audience,” Paul Schiff Berman, the vice provost of online education and academic innovation, said. "I believe that we can at least develop some initial MOOC courses without significant additional expenditures."

Berman said he could not comment on specific costs until he studies the issue fully, but GW would likely start “in a relatively small way” with its program to see if it's worth the hefty investment it may demand.

Officials from other universities have pegged the cost of launching one MOOC at $50,000, which includes paying for hosting cloud computing systems, teaching assistant salaries, video equipment, marketing and instructional design. Georgetown announced last fall it would invest $8 million in academic technology.

Berman, who left the law school deanship this month, also declined to say what specific subject areas GW is eyeing for its first open online courses, but the University has typically viewed policy- and government-related coursework as its academic X-factor. The majority of MOOCs have focused on technical fields like computer science or math, but more are starting to pop up in subjects like philosophy, justice and finance.

GW’s change in stance is a sign of just how quickly the free courses have started to pervade higher education.

About 9 percent of universities plan on offering the free courses and 2.6 percent already do, according to Babson Survey Research Groups’ annual survey of 2,500 colleges and universities released Jan. 8.

Two main forces have driven the rise of MOOCs: the rocketing costs of college over the past decade and the globalization of higher education.

Many see an inexpensive, open-access education as a potential cure for an education system with a widening economic gap. The courses' popularity could also help promote universities’ brands globally, proponents say.

Stephen Ehrmann, vice provost for teaching and learning, outlined on his blog a hypothetical reason why GW would be interested in using a MOOC as a marketing edge, in addition to launching it as a public service.

“Suppose GW wanted to begin offering a hybrid degree program in bio-engineering to students in Brazil. But many students and educators in Brazil might not know about GW’s expertise in this field,” he wrote. “So, to spread the word, we might also try creating the world’s best Portuguese MOOC in bioengineering and take care to market it in Brazil.”

GW also has to avoid falling behind some of GW’s competitor schools like Duke, Emory and Vanderbilt and D.C. area schools like University of Maryland, Georgetown, University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins, which have all joined one of the three major online course providers, Coursera, EdX and Udacity.

And if universities partner with Coursera, they only receive about 15 percent of the revenue they produce, which comes from deals with textbook companies and corporations that want recruiting access to top students, according to a The New York Times report.

Berman said the University might not link up with Coursera or EdX, though, and instead opt to “provide the courses ourselves possibly through vendors we hire to do specific tasks.” The major companies would help pay for the courses' upkeep, but “you’ll be diluting your brand within a larger entity.”

But GW may have to make an uphill climb to make its slate of courses a success.

While the University has offered online programs and courses for over a decade for enrolled, tuition-paying students, professors say the sophistication of its academic technology has lagged.

Nearly two-thirds of classrooms are equipped with outdated IT or audiovisual equipment, and the Academic Technologies office has suffered from budget shortfalls in recent years – creating a struggle to meet demands for upgrades. The University's $1.3 billion endowment – which helps pay for academic budgets – is smaller than those of many top universities that have invested in the online courses.

And if the University launched MOOCs independently without partnering with Coursera, EdX or a smaller company, the University would also have to tack on costs of marketing, instructional design and customer support, Berman said. Those are in addition to the universal challenges of preventing cheating, offering academic credit and producing revenue.

The cost of offering the classes and upholding their academic quality were both part of Knapp’s hesitation to launch MOOCs, he said in November.

“You have to be careful, because there are always trade-offs. If you’re investing in one thing, you can’t invest in something else,” Knapp said then.

Soon after Berman jumped from the law school deanship to the provost’s cabinet, he said the University would mainly be looking at expanding its online footprint into more executive education and tuition-based global programs. In addition, last fall’s draft of the strategic plan outlines plans to expand GW’s brand through online lectures from campus speakers.

One GW professor, associate professor of English Margaret Soltan, has tackled MOOCs independently. She already teaches a course on poetry through the Faculty Project at Udemy, winning considerable exposure on account of the course, including a profile in the Chronicle of Higher Education and a request to speak at Harvard University.

But the exposure comes without direct financial gain.

“It’s all a rather shaky proposition – if money is your aim,” Soltan said. “If getting your university’s name out there in the world in a big way is a motivation, and if doing some good in the world is a motivation, MOOCs are a very good way to go.”

Cory Weinberg contributed to this report.

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