MOOCs: Where do they fit here?

In 2008, a couple of instructors teaching an online course through the University of Manitoba opened their class to outsiders. More than 2,000 non-tuition-paying learners joined the 25 students taking the class for credit. Many consider that Canadian class to be the first massive open online course, in short, a MOOC.

Five years later, MOOCs are, to put it mildly, trending. Long a topic in academic circles, they've moved into mainstream press and even are getting attention from some politicians. While some universities scramble to jump on the MOOC bandwagon, others, like Iowa State, pause to consider how MOOCS might (or might not) fit at their institutions.

Jim Twetten


Ralph Napolitano


Tom Brumm


In the thick of deliberations about MOOCs and other kinds of online instruction at Iowa State are Tom Brumm, professor-in-charge of Engineering-LAS Online Learning, director of assessment for the College of Engineering, and associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering; Ralph Napolitano, associate director for online learning, Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, and Julie Renken Professor in Materials Science and Engineering; and Jim Twetten, director of academic technologies in information technology services.

In a recent session with Inside, they shared their observations about MOOCs, in general, and their future at Iowa State.

Who's doing MOOCs?

Twetten: There are three big MOOC providers -- Coursera, edX and Udacity. There are more out there because these things basically are big learning management systems. Not too surprisingly, we see the Blackboard, Desire2Learn and Instructure Canvas companies all saying, "Oh yeah, we do MOOCs, too," and they all offer their own platforms, using their software. There are MOOC providers popping up everywhere.

Napolitano: Among the big three, Coursera is largest with more than 60 university partners.

ISU faculty and staff discuss educational technology daily on the ComETS group email list.

What are MOOC flavors?

Twetten: There are all kinds of MOOC flavors. One flavor is "I've got a course and I'm going to open it up and anybody can listen." It's just like auditing a class.

Brumm: One kind of MOOC is often referred to as a cMOOC (the "c" stands for "connectivism" as in the connectivism theory of learning) that emphasizes connected, collaborative learning and new learning methods beyond the traditional classroom setting. The learner is engaged in the discussion and creating new information.

On the other hand, xMOOCs ("x" stands for "extended") use teaching methods that are an extension of the methods already used in the offering institution. Coursera, edEx and Udacity, for example, offer mainly xMOOCs.

Are people learning in MOOCS or are they just dabbling?

Brumm: All of the above.

Napolitano: It's very difficult to quantify the learning outcomes associated with a MOOC. There is no standard method of delivery, data collection or assessment, so it's hard to get anything quantitative. It's also really hard, if you have 10,000 or 50,000 students, to monitor outcomes and correlate them to student preparation, commitment or effort. Certainly, there are a lot of people who register for MOOCs because of how easy it is to just go to a site, browse and register.

Twetten: I'm in one right now from the University of Maryland, on "Disruptive Technologies."

Napolitano: And you are free to survey with no commitment, follow it for a week or so and then decide to just unplug or fall off the map.

Brumm: There are a lot of statistics that show the vast majority of people who take MOOCs don't complete them. They sign up. They're engaged for a week or two and then quit participating.

Twetten: When you start providing credits or some sort of credentialing, then I think you start to see stronger involvement and completion for participants. But you also have the whole bunch of other headaches that come along with that.

How is credentialing done in a MOOC?

Napolitano: Currently, MOOCs offer very limited credentialing. Some MOOCs provide some form of certificate or “Statement of Accomplishment” to recognize students who complete a course. The question of more rigorous credentials and their recognition is a topic of great interest and speculation. Some believe that MOOCs will provide a way to move from our traditional credit hour system to systems based solely on competency exams, where students pursue whatever education they want through MOOCs and other avenues and, at some point, demonstrate specific skills through competency exams. Proponents argue that such a system would provide a better measure or snapshot of a student's skill set at a particular time.

But there are some dangers. If you go that route, you throw out all of the rigor that's built into a university program -- whether it comes from time-tested programs of study that include important overlap, building skills upon skills and connection between topics, developing the broad knowledge base required for effective, ethical, and responsible practice  or whether it comes from engagement in campus organizations, experiential opportunities or simply navigating the institutional structure. Part of going through a four- or five-year program is just managing that long span of time and all of the ups and downs that go along with it. Along with knowledge and skill, commitment, dedication, and persistence are qualities that our current system ensures.

Brumm: It's a cultural change for companies, as well. Employers hire students from our Engineering and Agricultural and Life Sciences colleges, for example, because they know that Iowa State is a good school and our students have the technical background. But they also know those students make great employees because they've been in student leadership, clubs and internships. They've done all those things that brand Iowa State and make our students much more valuable to employers.

So here's this person who's sat at home and taken all these online courses (perhaps with some other experiences) or here's a student who's been engaged for four years at a university, shown leadership and gotten involved and had experiences that really make a better employee. If I'm an employer, I might say, "Credentialing is great, but prove to me that you're going to be a great employee."

What kinds of costs do universities incur with a MOOC?

Brumm: Most costs would be in support staff and teaching assistants. You have to hire extra TAs to help manage the course, particularly if the MOOC students are engaged rather than just passively listening.

Twetten: Coursera, for example, wants a very high level of production quality in online videos. It's more than just sitting down in front of your computer and using the little built-in eyeball camera. Look at the credits on some of the MOOCs on Coursera. You'll see lists of 20 to 25 people who dove in to help create that MOOC.

Brumm: Buy-ins can be costly, as well. The University of Texas system paid $7 million to join edX.

What kinds of things might be a good fit between MOOCS and traditional universities?

Twetten: I think MOOCs can have an interesting impact when you mix the traditional path and the credentialing path. Can a university that is struggling because it doesn't have a core competency or a core curriculum borrow a piece of curricular structure from Stanford?

Brumm: For example, do we really need to teach Intro 101 at every single university? Some might say that Intro 101 is pretty much the same wherever you are. The implications for us is, "Wow, maybe we don't have to teach Intro 101," and we can take the resources that we use for Intro 101 and put them somewhere else, where they can add more value to the student experience.

Napolitano: Certainly, there could be ways in which MOOCs could be effectively integrated into the traditional on-campus university experience. For example, like independent reading, MOOCs allow students to freely explore and extend the scope of their education in a self-guided manner. In addition, by offering MOOCs in selected topics, a university can enable prospective students to view courses before making decisions about their career path and which fields they may want to pursue. Another opportunity would be that a traditional university course could utilize one or more existing MOOCs from other universities as courseware material, effectively facilitating a flipped course strategy.

Is Iowa State going to jump on the MOOC bandwagon?

Napolitano: The bigger question is how MOOCs might fit into our overall plan to use online learning to enhance on-campus residential learning and the experience of all of our students. It's so tempting to jump on the bandwagon. But MOOCs are one particular component of the broad spectrum of online learning. As you talk about MOOCs, you have to come back to the university mission. How do MOOCS fit into the overall scope of what we do at Iowa State and the overall educational and experiential value we provide to our students.

Brumm: You know there are institutions that are doing it [MOOCs] just because they can. I don't think Iowa State will be one of them.

Twetten: You're saying we'll find a pragmatic need before taking such a step.

Brumm: Yes. Unless it's connected to our mission, how do you justify a state institution making the investment in time, people, money to do that?

Are there any plans for an experimental MOOC or two?

Brumm: We're going to experiment because we know we need to get some experience and understanding, and the only way you can do it is to get your feet wet. But the idea that we're going to see a whole plethora of MOOCs offered at Iowa State, I don't see it.

Twetten: It's hard to be a voyeur to other schools. With any new innovation that comes out, you have to try it locally in order to understand how it impacts all the different pieces. What does this mean, for instance, to the Registrar if we do a MOOC? How does this impact how we provide online content? Does it impact the bookstore at all? Until you bring it onto campus and see how it interfaces with all our existing business models, I don't think you can fully begin to understand it and you can't have the dialogue locally.

Napolitano: I think the general point to take away is that we're committed to doing this in a responsible way, from all perspectives.

Can MOOCs and bricks and mortar universities co-exist?

Brumm: Yes, although, there's discussion about that. Some folks are saying that the university as we know it will be dead in seven years.

Twetten: That's ridiculous.

Napolitano: Similar questions might have been raised with the invention of the printing press, or television, videotape, the Internet, and so on. Brick and mortar institutions can be far more than conduits for information. They are centers of innovation, collaboration, and inspiration.

Brumm: Where's the added value? Critical thinking and social interaction and leadership and teamwork.

Twetten: And learning how to learn and change throughout your life.

Brumm: Exactly. Ultimately, we go out and make our lives for ourselves, not in little cubicles plugged into computers. We're interacting with people.

In 2020, how will students get a college degree?

Brumm: Iowa State University still will be here. The substantial educational experience will be in face-to-face classes, although you'll see it augmented with technology and some amount of online courses.

Twetten: Nationally, I think you'll see a very small segment of degrees that can be earned by taking all or almost all online courses. My prediction is that those offerings will impact the business model of traditional universities (like Iowa State) enough that we'll have to react to that.

Napolitano: I think that the landscape will change, but the core of residential, on-campus education will be intact. By and large, the system that we have now will be in place in 2020 and in 2030. The differences will show up in our incoming students, who will have had exposure to online MOOCs and other kinds of online tools. They'll come in with much more knowledge and, I hope, a better understanding of how it might be used. Certainly, they'll be better informed.

We'll be able to do a lot more with experiential learning than we can do now. Our biggest bottleneck for high-value-added programs like study abroad, internships and co-ops is that students miss class time. Online learning will help to mitigate most of those problems. Students can go off and engage in all kinds of off-campus experiences while still taking classes.

Additionally, we'll be able to implement lifetime learning much better. What if graduates of Iowa State have lifetime access to all online courses? What if we offer five-year refresher programs? For example, why shouldn't a graduate from mechanical engineering take a five-year refresher program and get a certificate saying that he or she did so? Shouldn't that be the norm as opposed to the exception, and shouldn't we lead the way? If others are going to focus on turning more classes into MOOCs, we should lead by being more creative.


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