Should Students Take a Common Summer MOOC?

For many years, a substantial number of colleges have asked their incoming students to all read the same book as a part of student orientation. For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Go Big Read program asked students last year to read “Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout” by Lauren Redniss. And when I was a freshman in college at Truman State University, my common read was “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois.

While I enjoyed my common reading experience, I have to wonder if alternative methods could be used to heighten student engagement. The great amount of recent discussion about MOOCs (massively open online courses) leads me to think that a small number of innovative colleges should assign their students a common MOOC instead of a common book. While a MOOC may be more work than reading a book, it has the potential to better prepare students for their future college experiences.

A common MOOC should have the same properties of a successful common read. It must be accessible to the typical student, yet be challenging enough to stimulate discussion and get students acclimated to college-level coursework. It should also reach students across a large number of majors and interests. While colleges may want to develop their own MOOC for this purpose, here are a few courses which could stimulate interesting discussion:

Generating the Wealth of Nations

Maps and the Geospatial Revolution

TechniCity” (how cities are changing)

While I hold no great hopes that MOOCs will completely transform higher education, I think the technology can help at least some students. And a common summer MOOC may be one way to do so, assuming issues of Internet accessibility can be addressed.

On MOOCs and Money

Massively open online courses (MOOCs) have become the newest fashionable trend in higher education. These courses, which are open to anyone and can cover anything from songwriting to combinatorial game theory (which sounds both fun and exceedingly challenging), have begun to gain recognition among policymakers and the public alike. The American Council on Education announced that five MOOCs from Coursera would be recommended for college credit, hastening the move into the technology.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison announced last night that its faculty would offer four MOOCs in conjunction with Coursera as a part of the university’s Educational Innovations program. While the MOOCs (in video games and learning, higher education globalization, evolution, and economics/finance) would not currently be offered for credit, the potential certainly exists for credit in the future. These courses could be a part of the Flexible Option program through the University of Wisconsin System, which has gained additional support in Governor Walker’s new budget.

With all of the potential promise of MOOCS to help students get access to higher education, there are still many concerns to be addressed. Coursera recently had to call off a MOOC on the fundamentals of online education, as the technology wasn’t ready for 40,000 students. Issues of access are also important with MOOCs, as they appeal to students who prefer more independent learning and are ready to handle that sort of delivery concern. We also know little about whether MOOCs are effective in promoting student learning, both compared to an in-person class or even to nothing at all.

From a university’s perspective, MOOCs present both promises and pitfalls. If a university can develop a successful MOOC (in the sense of gaining public support), it is a potential way to increase funding through either state appropriations (as could be the case in Wisconsin) or donations from satisfied students. If a few entry-level courses (such as UC-Irvine’s offerings of algebra and pre-calculus) were to be offered for credit, it could serve as a potential way for students to select colleges or familiarize themselves with higher-level coursework.

Current university students (and faculty) should be concerned about where the faculty time for developing these MOOCs comes from. Many faculty at research universities (the ones who are likely to develop MOOCs) are teaching one or two courses per semester in an environment where teaching is valued less than research. These courses would have to be developed on a professor’s own time or count as part of the service component—it is essential that teaching loads not be reduced for developing MOOCs unless the university is somehow compensated. An option for compensation is to have foundations help fund initial course development in the form of faculty buyouts.

I am glad that the University of Wisconsin-Madison is starting small with MOOCs, as these courses have potential to help improve student learning on the margin at this point in time. If a college can develop a MOOC for an entry-level class that can be cost-effective, I’ll be a lot more optimistic. But for right now, it’s a neat way to see new research in specialized fields and could certainly be a way for advanced undergraduate students to take an “elective” course in their field of study. I am waiting for more research before fully jumping on the MOOC bandwagon.