Professor studies effectiveness of massive open online courses

The University awarded a physics professor $10,000 Monday to investigate how well students learn in free online courses that are open to anyone with an internet connection.

The funds given to teaching assistant physics professor Raluca Teodorescu mark GW’s first investment to examine the effectiveness of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which have splashed across higher education this year, offering ways for universities to brand themselves and show off innovative learning tools.

The University started working last month toward launching a set of pilot MOOCs later this year, but some deans and program directors have doubted their academic credibility. With universities like Stanford, Northwestern and University of Illinois spending an estimated $50,000 for each free course, Teodorescu’s work will try to show if that hefty cost is worth the investment.

“The more people get involved into researching the online education, the better we’ll understand it and consequently, learn how to do it better,” she said.

The grant is part of the Office of the Provost’s program launched this year to give cash to professors who pitch innovative proposals to improve undergraduate education at GW.

Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Stephen Ehrmann said Teodorescu’s research would help GW learn more about the free courses.

“We supported Raluca’s work in part because she’s studying what learners do in a MOOC and that should help us learn something about whether those activities are indeed likely to be ‘high impact,’ ” Ehrmann wrote in an email.

Teodorescu will work with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s education research group to develop a MOOC on introductory physics to be housed at MIT. The research team will track how students use online forums, read online textbooks and perform on assessments.

Teodorescu spent last summer at MIT as a visiting research scientist working to develop a MOOC with physics professor David Pritchard. Part of their research has been based on tracking how students behaved in one of MIT’s first free digital courses on electronics and circuits.

Pritchard, who leads an education research group at MIT, said studying open digital courses was the perfect laboratory to explore how students learn, and said that research was taking off.

“We don’t have to get very far off the ground before we learn more about what students learn in MOOCs and what they do to learn it than people have learned about these things in the last 50 years of on-campus courses in higher education,” Pritchard said. He added that the next big step for MOOCs would be to prove that they are not only attracting millions of people but also providing solid learning assessments.

Provost Steven Lerman tapped former GW Law School dean Paul Schiff Berman in November to steer a University-wide online strategy, including a launch of free courses.

He said the MOOCs would likely not be full classes, but instead be more like “a great PBS educational service” that can be set up with limited costs.

“We can provide a great educational experience for those who choose to use it, but we have no intention of creating a revenue-generating model out of it. We have no intentions of trying to worry about how to get credit. It’s not about that,” he said.

Cory Weinberg contributed to this report

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