MOOCs in our future?
Lack of interaction is a big concern
MOOCs are the hottest trend in higher education, but are they right for Binghamton?
When considering whether Binghamton University should
hit the accelerator for online learning and start offering MOOCs — massive open online courses — think of a worker holding a “Go Slow” sign on a highway construction project.
“We’ll proceed very cautiously,” says Donald Nieman, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “I start from the premise that we’re principally a residential campus and that’s going to continue to control what we do. At the same time, we can’t be oblivious to the opportunities technology provides us.”
Binghamton already offers two master’s degree programs in engineering that are fully online. What’s different about a MOOC is that it is free to anyone who wants to take it. There is no tuition, grade requirement, prerequisite, set schedule or penalty for dropping the course. And there is usually no credit awarded toward a degree, although there can be a certificate of completion.
What students do with what they learn in a MOOC is ambiguous. Still, the inclusive spirit of a MOOC can be hard to resist.
But is it right for Binghamton?
Faculty and administration are wrestling with that and other questions: How will MOOCs fit the University’s mission? What programs will be developed? How will academic integrity and quality be ensured, and who owns the rights to a MOOC once a faculty member creates it?
“The MOOC is, in some sense, a project without a clear purpose or business model,” Nieman says.
“I think we need to start looking at MOOCs 2.0,” says James Pitarresi, assistant provost and executive director of the Center for Learning and Teaching. “We’re interested in MOOCs, but not interested in repeating what’s been done.”
One idea for a Binghamton MOOC borrows from the flipped-classroom format. Instead of lectures being available only on Blackboard, the electronic interface between instructors and students, selected talks would be available on YouTube, where anyone could access them. The MOOC-like lectures would be well-produced and informative for a larger outside audience, but also supplement what’s going on in class.
“The challenge is embracing the new technology while retaining what’s unique about the Binghamton University experience,” Pitarresi says. “MOOC 2.0 shares quality information, gains exposure for the University, but keeps learning focused on the residential experience.”
Wayne Jones, professor of chemistry and chair of the Chemistry Department, sees the value in creating a modified MOOC.
“In essence a MOOC is a flipped course, and we’ve had success with those. But a MOOC leaves out the most valuable aspect of the Binghamton learning experience, which is dialogue and exchange with a real faculty member,” he says. “Next-generation MOOCs need to find ways to provide that interaction.
“MOOCs are like television was in the 1950s. There were projections of colleges all being on television at that time, but we learned then, and we are seeing now, that video alone doesn’t cut it. We need to identify new technologies that will allow more students to join the discussion effectively beyond video content,” Jones says.
Nieman emphasizes the need for a wise investment of resources, whether it’s in MOOCs or other types of online learning.
“When the president of the United States throws out the word ‘innovation,’ people think it means using bells and whistles to get a quick fix, to create cheaper education. And it’s just not that easy. It’s a matter of taking technology and other techniques to create a richer learning experience for students. If you can do that, it’s meaningful. If you can’t, it’s just so much fluff.”
– By George Basler and Diana Bean '81