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.

Analyzing UW-Madison’s Accountability Report

Recent legislative changes required the University of Wisconsin-Madison to submit an annual accountability report summarizing the university’s accomplishments over the previous year. While the UW System and UW-Madison already do a commendable job of making basic performance data public, this year’s accountability report nicely summarizes the performance data. A few highlights are below:

–The retention and graduation rates (for first-time, full-time students) are very high, as they should be given students’ academic and financial resources. Nearly 94% of students returned for a second year and 83% graduated within six years using the most recent data available. The retention and graduation rates are lower for targeted minority students (91% and 69%, respectively), but the gap is not nearly as large at UW-Madison as at many other universities.

–Just over half (52%) of all undergraduate students filed the FAFSA in 2011. Of these students, the median family income was just over $99,000. Given that most students who do not file the FAFSA and enroll in a selective college come from high-income families, the median family income of UW-Madison undergraduates is likely well in excess of $100,000 per year. This report does not include retention and graduation rates by Pell Grant receipt, but other UW-Madison data reports do.

–Roughly eight in ten students reported being able to enroll in desired classes most or all of the time (using data from the National Survey of Student Engagement). This is an improvement of roughly ten percentage points in the past five years, but more still needs to be done.

–ECON 101 (principles of microeconomics) was taken by 2,831 students in fall 2010 or spring 2011. That number makes me glad that I am no longer a TA for that course!

–UW-Madison claims an impact of $12.4 billion on the Wisconsin economy and creates or supports over 128,000 jobs. I am skeptical of those numbers, but the impact is clearly large. (But the question remains—what can we be doing better with our available funds?)

The accountability report for the rest of the UW System is available here.