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Colleges and universities begin to assess the benefits of MOOCs

Higher educatioin finds that a primary benefit of MOOCs is data that can be used to improve teaching methods
University Business, September 2013

When Cornell University joined the edX consortium last May, the impetus came not only from professors who wanted to offer MOOCs but also from prospective students who were asking admissions officers about whether the university provided these courses.

“They were hearing from high school students that if you are going to be a modern university, you have to participate in this,” says Joe Burns, Cornell’s dean of faculty and member of a committee that considered whether the university should affiliate with a consortium.

Colleges and universities have entered the world of MOOCs with faculty and administrators considering the pedagogical, technological, and branding aspects of them. For Cornell and many other universities, one of the primary benefits of offering MOOCs is the opportunity to analyze large samples of data that can be used to improve teaching methods.

“When you have a class of 100,000 students, you are able to really differentiate aspects of your pedagogy that might go unnoticed in a class of 100,” says Connor Diemand-Yauman, course operations specialist for Coursera. “When instructors make MOOCs, they are able to see if thousands of students are missing a particular question on an assessment. It allows professors to refine their teaching practices.”

Officials at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland had a pedagogical objective in mind when they created a MOOC on pre-algebra, the lowest level of developmental math at the college. Offered four times this spring, the month-long course attracted 1,800 students, including a large contingent from four high schools in Cleveland.

The purpose of the course was to help students pass developmental math more quickly so they can move on to college-level courses. “The faster we can get students through those remedial courses and onto college-level courses, the more successful they will be in getting through college,” says Sasha Thackaberry, district director for e-learning technologies at Cuyahoga.

With a $50,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the course was developed using CourseSites, Blackboard’s online learning platform that allows schools to run MOOCs for free. The college is now analyzing the data generated by the MOOC to determine the demographics of the participants and how students who had been successful engaged with the content.

A 2013 survey of 41 colleges and universities conducted by The Parthenon Group, a Boston-based strategy consulting firm, found that most institutions are delving into MOOCs primarily to determine how to improve their online teaching, says Haven Ladd, a partner with the firm’s educational practice.

“MOOCs are now in this experimental period,” Ladd says. “They are not transformative to higher education because they do not yet have a sustainable economic model. But that experimental format is great for individuals in the higher education sector because it’s forcing them to think about how they use online learning to fulfill their mission.”