Administrators doubt advantages of free online courses

by Catherine Barnao

The University is poised to join its most prestigious peers and offer free online courses available to anyone in the world, but some top administrators are skeptical – which could cause the plans to hit a wall.

GW’s new online learning czar Paul Schiff Berman said in early January that he will spend his first months planning a rollout of massive open online courses, or MOOCs – which include Web lectures, slides and videos for non-degree courses ranging from philosophy to web design. Across GW’s colleges though, there is uncertainty about the courses’ academic potential.

The free programs have caught fire around higher education, with top universities like Stanford, Harvard, Duke, Princeton and Columbia leading the pack.

Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Dean Peg Barratt said she has reservations about the courses that could potentially be taught to tens of thousands of students from across the globe. She said because of their enormous class sizes, the quality of education may not be up to par.

“We in Columbian College spend a lot of time building the partnerships between students and our faculty, and you’ve had a lot of small classes where that is possible and you’ve gotten to know your professors,” Barratt, who leads GW’s largest college, said. “A MOOC isn’t about that.”

University President Steven Knapp has shared that sentiment in past interviews, casting doubt on the effectiveness of the large-scale online courses.

Barratt said last week that while she is not entirely opposed to launching free online courses in fields like political science or economics, the college has no “immediate plans” to launch them, citing concerns with learning standards and whether the courses would produce revenue.

Administrators at other universities have said the cost of launching one MOOC is $50,000, though some say they hold branding power. The classes also act as a public service, helping stem the exploding costs of college.

In addition to meeting with Barratt last week, Berman will also meet with Michael Brown, dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs, Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs and others over the next month.

Sesno also said he was not yet sold on the value of the free courses.

“When I worked in television, we had what I referred to as a ‘boys and their toys’ problem,” Sesno, former Washington bureau chief for CNN, said. “Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you do it well. Just because the technology exists, doesn’t mean you should use it.”

Jennifer Golden, the Elliott School’s director of public affairs, said the school is interested in learning more about the costs and logistics of running the open online courses, but added that it was too soon to comment on if the school is leaning one way or another about offering them.

Stacey DiLorenzo, a spokeswoman for the School of Public Health and Health Services, said that while the college is also on the fence, it is also uneasy about their academic quality, financial sustainability, student assessment and completion rates. SPHHS began offering an online graduate degree this semester, describing the program on its website as interactive, “unlike the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) model, in which students passively watch pre-taped lectures and have little to no contact with professors.”

Berman, who started his online learning job last Monday, said in an email that he would help ease concerns about the free courses during meetings with faculty and administrators, stressing that GW “will not expend significant University resources” on them.

“As such, there is little or no downside to our experimenting with ways to provide broader access to some of GW's intellectual vitality through these courses,” Berman, the former GW Law School dean, said.

But other universities and companies have started to tinker with how to make that technology effective – even offering course credit or charging for them.

GW’s strategy – hanging back until the marketplace develops and then launching courses in its academic strengths – seems logical, experts said.

“I think it definitely makes sense to, if you’re going to have a MOOC strategy, to have a focused strategy,” said Richard Garrett, a higher education analyst at the Boston-based consulting firm Eduventures.

By using the free courses to give students a taste of GW’s best professors and classes, Garrett said MOOCs might eventually serve as recruitment tools for the University.

Despite the growing number of schools that are linking up with host companies for free online courses, Kristen Amundson, senior vice president for external relations for the think tank Education Sector said there’s still room for schools like GW because “we’re kind of in the ‘Wild West’ stage here.”

If anything, GW is just its “period of thoughtful planning,” said Michael Feuer, dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development.

“I basically admire our willingness as a University to think before we jump,” Feuer said. “Now, that doesn’t mean we think forever and we never jump.”

Cory Weinberg contributed to this report.

View the policies on commenting here.

blog comments powered by Disqus