Adlt 641-8 “Did anyone say MOOC?”

When you live in a small college town, it’s difficult to shed the feeling that the town exists to support the university.  Everywhere one goes in Charlottesville, the presence of the University of Virginia is felt.  When graduation is over, the community unleashes its belt, sighs and relaxes. Summer break is our time to wander around town with ease, to walk around the grounds and to admire Mr. Jefferson’s  Academical Village.  We don’t expect news about the university to dominate the media at this time, which made the events of June 2012 disconcerting.  The resignation of the beloved president dumbfounded everyone while drawing national attention to the town.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, which announced Sullivan’s abrupt decision on June 10, garnered over 125 comments.  Helen Dragas, the rector of the board of visitors, “specifically cited the need for a leader who would be open to changes in curriculum-delivery methods, including online learning.” My Facebook page was alight with daily status updates.  Rumblings over the ethical treatment of “our community’s” president  supersede those regarding the concept of “online coursework.”  However, most paled in comparison to the lengthy diatribe contributed by readers, several that questioned the purpose or validity of open, online education.                                                                                                                           

I followed the local and national stories with interest, filtering through the gossip with details that were funneled to me as a university volunteer. The dust had not settled before  the university’s new relationship with Coursera was announced on July 17, 2012.  I’ve taken numerous graduate courses over the years, of which only one was a hybrid course and none was free. Over the last several years, I have seen advertisements on television regarding the University of Phoenix, as well as other online for profit institutions.  I’ve always wondered how coursework from such institutions compared with that offered by traditional universities.The “21st Century Literacy” hybrid course, offered through Longwood University, was both rigorous and academically rewarding.  An important component of my Personal Learning Network is to read articles regarding higher education. I have read journal  articles during the last six months but have not responded by submitting comments.   (I will consider commenting on articles as a way in which I will become a more connected learner!)

One of the comments on  July 17, 2012 article was particularly interesting-

This individual, jspqr 4 months ago states,

Regarding such online program revenue streams: I’ve taught in a technical discipline at large state universities for about 15 years, and I’ve been teaching in a major online university in the same discipline for 2 years.  I can say without reservation that many (most?) online courses in my general discipline are a course design, pedagogical, and learning assessment nightmare; and this isn’t unique to the university for which I teach, based on many discussions I’ve had with faculty in other online universities.  In short, the students simply are not achieving near the same levels of learning as students in traditional universities. Their real world performance is, on average, nowhere near their peers educated in traditional universities with similar grades and degrees. (This comment received 43 “likes.”)

While this comment is certainly not positive,  it is could certainly be a spring board for conversation regarding the objective for teaching and taking online courses. The concept of a MOOC was  unfamiliar to me prior to the summer, of 2012, however,  that didn’t deter me from the excitement over something new! I quickly dug into the Coursera website. It was easy to immerse myself in the offerings of the company.  I  discovered that the courses are not for the faint of heart! Many appear to be quite challenging and are created for those with an extensive background in science, mathematics and engineering.  After considerable thought, I decided to enroll in two courses, one at the University of Virginia and the other at the University of Edinburgh. Both courses begin in 2013.  One intrigues me as I consider the possibility of owning my own business after graduate school.  The advertisement for this course, at the time that I viewed it, consisted of a written explanation of the course. There was also just one course posted, “Grow to Greatness:  Smart Growth for Private Businesses.” Since my enrollment  an additional course, along with a video created by the professor, was posted to the Coursera website. While enamored with the possibility of trying something new and exciting, the question Why plagued me.  What would cause any university  teach me for “free?” Surely there must be something that the university will gain by asking professors to provide instruction for free!

I found that I wasn’t alone in my thinking.  There were others who posed questions that I had about the motivation of free courseware. Consider these comments posted in response to the July 17, 2012 article in the Chronicle-

vlwyss 3 months ago “I don’t understand how the universities make money with this design….yet I know they would not do it if it were not a potential money-maker.”

observer0001 3 months ago “They don’t expect it to- this is simply a marketing ploy with some public service thrown in. It is intended to extend the  reach of their brand (but not its product, since they are indeed luxury products), present them as innovators, ‘build buzz,’ and gain prestige by being part of an elite group who can throw resources at it.”The other primary audience is to US legislatures to protect their not-for-profit statuses and endowments from taxation, providing an easy to understand free outreach ‘service’ they can point to. “

tgraham13 3 months ago “The burning question is whether the overall revenue will drop precipitously as a result of MOOCs. “

Several week’s after a class discussion of open coursework,  Joanne posted a blog discussing the similarities between marketing and adult education.  The dashboards created by Coursera Universities are attractive and engaging, in my “non-marketing background opinion.” This blog prompted me to look again at the course that I selected, Grow to Greatness.   She asserts that there is growing interest in massive open online courses. I wonder if Coursera is generating data about why students are selecting to take these classes along with what students are learning? What will they do with this data?  What is their return on their investment?  Students don’t technically purchase a course.  I assume that the act of selecting and completing a course is considered the purchase? What is the catch?  Who is paying for the course? J. Milton Adams, the vice provost for academic programs at UVA believes that Coursera classes ” would allow Virginia to fulfill its mission as a public institution of higher education, and would give faculty members a virtual testing ground that they could use to improve their courses.”
Hum…I think.  There you have it!  The vice provost has provided a clue as to the reason why some institutes would consider participating in this platform.  I don’t have a problem being part of a study, however, I would like to know before I take a class if a study will occur.  Sounds ethically responsible, yes?  During my last two years of teaching, I participated in a research study conducted by CASTL, The Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning.  I enjoyed the experience, found my relationship with the research scientist productive and the project overall rewarding.  Research is an important way in which to understand how our work impacts the community.  As an educator, I feel that it’s part of my professional civic responsibility.
Civic responsibility isn’t a new concept and is one that I consider with each volunteer opportunity that I select.  Civic Value is another concept altogether.   According to Clay Shirky, civic value is created by the participants but enjoyed by by society as a whole.  He contends that one of the goals of CV is to make life better for everyone in society. Jess shared a TED Talk about cognitive surplus, which asks me  to consider open courseware with a new perspective.  Shirky contends that society has trillions of hours of time available for individuals to contribute to society without a large amount of contractual overhead.  Weinberger concurs when considering how the net is a place to build knowledge with this burst of collective creativity.  He submits that “…we’ve always pursued knowledge for an impure mix of reasons, simply because we are humans.”
The motives for well-known universities to collaborate vary just as the motives for participation vary from student to student.  I am excited about this new adventure in learning. I feel confident that  I will benefit from the cognitive surplus of those who like to create and share.  In terms of building a new infrastructure of knowledge through Coursera, I concur with Weinberger who believes that there is so little that stands in our way of learning and contributing.  The weakest of reasons can be a good enough reason to contribute.  He says that we have no idea what cannot be done by humans when they are working at the scale of the web!
Coursera’s  vision,” to give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few…. to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in,” reflects the philosophy of 21st Century learning where individuals are motivated to design and share, where free cultures get what they celebrate. 


4 thoughts on “Adlt 641-8 “Did anyone say MOOC?”

  1. You focused in on a pretty negative comment and noted, “…While this comment is certainly not positive, it is could certainly be a spring board for conversation regarding the objective for teaching and taking online courses. ”

    I do not discount that there are many online courses for which this is true…just as there are many face-to-face courses that equally “…are a course design, pedagogical, and learning assessment nightmare…”

    This person’s comment is one opinion. My opinion (equally valid or invalid) comes from having taught the same courses face-to-face and online…and having administered the same final exam, and over a three year period, my bell curves in the two methodologies were virtually the same. Same percentage of A’s and B’s, same percentage of D/F/W’s.

    There are two sides to this discussion. 🙂


    1. You’re absolutely right, there are two sides to every story. Just as there are sides regarding teaching a course, there are sides regarding taking a course. My husband spent a year taking courses for a project management course. He had several good professors, one or two with relatively little technology experience and one who took off for a week from teaching without contacting his students. He found a dead body on his land and proceeded to play Ben Metlock while the police investigated it. At least the comment generated some reaction, yes? Articles regarding MOOCs and on-line classes surface several times a week. It’s not possible to react to everything. Sometimes it worth the effort to play devil’s advocate to stir up the pot a little bit.

      If you read further along into the blog, you’ll notice that I had a very positive experience with the hybrid course that I took several years ago. I have signed up for two courses next winter and look forward to the experience.


  2. Whoa…what an impressive post!! This hits on some of the previous discussions we’ve had in class (and via blog posts) about the underlying intent of open courseware. We all want free education to be 100% altruistic, but our common sense tells us that can’t be the case (at least not fully). How interesting that Adams suggested it’s being used for research purposes at UVA! Can’t say I’m surprised. I’m really glad you’ve found some value in my Shirky posts. I’m definitely enjoying reading his book and learning more about how massive numbers of people can now come together in innovative ways. The concept of “cognitive surplus” is certainly a cool one.


    1. I look forward to reading more about Shirky. I appreciate the “find” in your blog that helped to generate my engine. This is one of the reasons why I wait until later in the week to write my blog. I think about it all week and then sit for several hours to write. Someone in the class always posts something to think about! I love the collaboration and hope to see it in other courses that I take!


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