University looks to roll out free online courses

GW is preparing to offer a set of massive open online courses that have been creating a buzz among higher education experts, a top administrator said.

Stephen Ehrmann, vice provost for teaching and learning, said the University could launch its own set of massive open online courses by 2014. Hatchet File Photo

But the University is not jumping immediately into the online education movement that a dozen major research universities joined Tuesday.

Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Stephen Ehrmann said Wednesday he has “opened discussions” with EdX, a joint venture between Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, to launch massive open online courses, or MOOCs, in 2014.

“A number of us have been talking about MOOCs and we’re considering it as a format for a course we might offer in 2014, but we don’t want to do it unless we do it well,” Ehrmann said. “We’re not ignoring this but we’re not offering a MOOC next term, either.”

The plans are a shift from the University’s plans in February, when Ehrmann said GW was not planning to add such courses, which are typically offered for free and not for credit.

Top schools like University of Virginia, Johns Hopkins University and Duke University announced Tuesday that they would join the likes of Stanford and Princeton in offering online classes – ranging from computer science to history – for free through Coursera, a one-year-old company started by two Stanford professors.

EdX, one of Coursera’s competitors, earned a $1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last month, and is looking for other universities to join the organization that combines top professors with new digital technology.

MOOCs have be likened to a tsunami by higher education experts, who have hyped their potential to give millions of people across the world access to the best instructors – potentially an education alternative in an era of rising college costs. About 680,000 students signed up for Coursera’s 43 courses last year.

GW has held back from offering MOOCs and instead focused on expanding its menu of for-credit hybrid programs because “our first priority is to give GW students the best possible education,” Ehrmann said.

“Everything else is a potential distraction and drain on very limited resources,” he added.

Most of the universities already offering MOOCs manage endowments in the tens of billions of dollars, dwarfing GW, a tuition-dependent university whose endowment stands at about $1.25 billion.

Universities offering MOOCs have yet to see any kind of revenue stream from the free courses – even taking on significant costs to offer the classes – but have earned praise for offering a public service.

“MOOCs are also intriguing, as a way of providing a public service for the world, as a way of gathering data about instructional materials we also use on campus, and even as a talent search for future GW students,” Ehrmann said, pointing to strategies already used by Stanford, Harvard and MIT.

One GW professor already teamed up with a company this spring to teach a massive open online course. Margaret Soltan, an associate professor of English, started an online course on modern poetry through The Faculty Project, run by the for-profit company Udemy.

Soltan lauded the potential for MOOCs, saying her course has drawn more than 800 students from around the world who stream her weekly lectures on poets like W.H. Auden and Sylvia Plath.

But Soltan, who writes a blog on higher education issues, cautioned that professors and universities should not try to monetize the courses or they will “threaten what’s best about MOOCs, I think – their looseness, their freedom, their openness, their non-mercenary nature as one person excited about a subject simply encountering and interacting with another.”

“So sure, GW should get on board.  It doesn’t really have any choice in the matter, since all the cool kids are doing it. But keep an eye on the evolution of MOOCs. They look very attractive now,” she said. “But as they become more and more bureaucratized and monetized, you’ll see them start to resemble the established deadly online courses many universities already offer their own students.”

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