Faculty take the lead in creating GW’s first MOOCs

GW is guiding a handful of professors to create massive open online courses, which could start teaching students from around the world by the end of the academic year.

Paul Schiff Berman, vice provost for online education and academic innovation, said MOOCs – free, not-for-credit classes – allow faculty to “reach a larger audience” and share information with those who have little access to education.

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Paul Schiff Berman, vice provost for online education and academic innovation, wants GW’s creation of massive open online courses to “empower” faculty.

“MOOCs should be about faculty empowerment, faculty members who want to experiment with a different modality of education,” Berman said. “I want to provide a way for them to do it.”

The University announced last winter that it would start to plan its own set of free online courses, which have multiplied at top universities like Harvard and Northwestern universities. Now, those plans are taking shape, with subjects like nursing and political management pegged as some of GW’s first MOOCs.

Berman said he hopes to eventually start programs tailored for audiences in developing countries. For example, he cited a possible School of Nursing-led course on neonatal care that would be slower-paced and involve more background exercises than a typical class.

GW is late to the free online education craze. MOOCs, which are often taught by star professors, attracted international media attention last year by drawing thousands of signups.

But some universities that rushed to start their own programs lost faculty support along the way. San Jose State University paused its MOOC program this summer after two semesters.

Berman said the more cautious approach would help professors understand how to translate a class from in-person to online.

Margaret Soltan, an English professor who created a MOOC on her own with the company Udemy last year, said teaching an online class requires a completely different mindset than teaching in the classroom.

“When I teach at GW, I have notes. When I do MOOCs, I’m just so nervous because I’m being filmed, and want everything to be perfect and want to communicate my passion for poetry,” Soltan said.

Craig Linebaugh, a professor of speech and hearing science, said universities have to be reserved about offering MOOCs for credit because it is difficult to gauge how much students learn from them.

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

“I have an obligation to the students in my course to assess their level of learning and to make sure they’re learning things,” said Linebaugh, a member of GW’s Teaching and Learning Collaborative. “If you can’t do that in valid and reliable ways, then you probably shouldn’t be getting credit.”

Faculty have other concerns about the online courses as well. In a survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education last spring, 55 percent of professors who taught a MOOC said it had diverted time away from other teaching and research.

Nearly three-quarters did not think students who did well in the open online courses deserved formal academic credit for their work, the survey showed.

For some of these reasons, the University has diverted its attention to degree-granting, tuition-generating online programs as a way to fill its coffers instead.

Now, Berman said the University is looking to use free online courses to spread the word about its top programs, not replace for-credit classes.

“The most important thing is if you’re going to do a course that is going to brand GW and help to sell GW and be a niche for the university, you want it to be good,” Berman said. “So I’m more concerned with making sure the courses are really high quality than I am with making sure they happen really fast.”

Berman declined to say which online provider the University would partner with because the agreements are not finalized. Companies like Coursera and 2U – and nonprofit ventures like EdX – have led the way in helping colleges start MOOCs.

– Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.

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