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University continues to offer MOOCs

| Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Last January, the University began offering massive open online courses (MOOCs) in partnership with the online learning platform edX. Since registration began, several of the University’s online courses have been completed, and the courses’ instructors said they have gained insight into MOOCs’ innovative educational approach.

Professor of physics Michael Hildreth and associate professor of teaching in mathematics Annette Pilkington collaborated as instructors for the University’s offering of “Math in Sports.”

“We had a couple of TAs who would monitor the online assignments and the blog chat,” Hildreth said. “The Office of Digital Learning did a huge amount of work in terms of post-production. … If I were to try do this by myself, I could never do it.”

Though producing the courses was a group effort, the instructors found the courses themselves were less collaborative. Pilkington said in an email she experienced less interaction with students than she had expected, and Hildreth agreed.

“There definitely is a disconnect. Because there was no feedback, you’re standing up there talking to an imaginary group of people. It is a little strange,” Hildreth said.

Gabriel Said Reynolds, professor of Islamic Studies and theology and the instructor for the University’s offering of “Introduction to the Quran: The Scripture of Islam,” said teaching an online course is challenging because the instructor does not have the direct contact of the physical classroom experience.

“Students are able to profit if they are motivated,” he said. “The great majority of students are not taking the course for a letter grade. … It showed me how much students are motivated by the grade.”

Hildreth said although the online courses were less interactive than more conventional offerings, he felt students received timely feedback and had their questions answered.

Pilkington said the edX has a good layout and smooth video playing, though she encountered programming limitations in creating math questions.

“The platform was pretty slick,” Hildreth said. “Production values are really high. I did some editing of the modules and things like that, and it was pretty easy to customize things and move things about.”

While there is speculation that MOOCs will fundamentally change higher education, Pilkington said she believes they offer more opportunities for students and teachers.

“I don’t think it will threaten the university system as we know it,” she said.

Hildreth said the MOOCs are missing the engagement of a physical classroom, where, crucially, students can engage with each other as well as the professor. The technology of online courses cannot replicate the interactivity of a conventional classroom experience, he said, although Hildreth did not rule out such a future possibility.

“I think putting as much content out there for people is better than nothing, but online learning doesn’t, by any sense of the imagination, replace what we do here in the classroom,” Hildreth said.

Reynolds said he felt online classes were a good thing for students, particularly those in countries without access to expert teachers. MOOCs also give more students access to leading scholars, he said, and facilitate the democratization of knowledge.

“Having taught mature students, I know that they have incredible motivation but struggle greatly with finding time to study,” Pilkington wrote. “I think that online courses and degrees will have great appeal to part-time students and will improve their lot by freeing up time that would otherwise be spent traveling to and from class at their local university in addition to providing options at distant institutions.”

Hildreth said he may use methods from his online class in his physical classroom, such as producing videos of him addressing a problematic concept. The instructional video could save instructors and students time on frequently asked questions.

Reynolds said there are many new possibilities to engage students created by the development of the technology behind MOOCs, and he believes they are an exciting way to use technology to aid, if not replace, the conventional learning process.

“Some students would thrive in an online environment and some would not do well. It is certainly beneficial to have resources available in the form of online courses,” Pilkington said. “However, I think given the choice between studying full-time at a university and studying part-time online, the better choice is to immerse oneself fully in their studies for a few years on a campus.”

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About Devon Chenelle

Devon Chenelle is a senior, formerly of Keough Hall. Returning to campus after seven months abroad, Devon is a history major with minors in Italian and Philosophy. He can be reached at dchenell@nd.edu - On résiste à l'invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l'invasion des idées.

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