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Are UT's Massive Online Courses Making the Grade?

Roy Varney for KUT News
James Pennebaker and Sam Gosling prepare to stream their for-credit online course.

This is the first of a two-part look at the University of Texas' Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), now halfway through their initial semester.

The University of Texas’ grand entry into Massive Open Online Courses is underway. The courses, better known as MOOCs, are offered as free ways for the general public to access high quality education.

By any traditional college metric, UT's MOOCs, offered for the first time this fall, would be performing terribly: The majority of students who signed up have dropped out, there is no way to detect cheating, and the grading systems are automated. But halfway through the semester, education experts view UT's MOOCs as a success – and a necessity for building the future of its education network.

The UT Board of Regents agreed one year ago to create nine MOOCs that would be hosted by the non-profit organization edX. Four of the courses began this fall. All were free to join, and not offered for credit. Total enrollment for these courses totaled nearly 125,000 participants.

UT's MOOCs are seen as a first foray into a practice with the potential to overhaul education. According to one survey, nearly one-third of higher education administrators believe MOOCs will one day replace traditional, residential courses. But plenty of issues still exist.

Building a Digital Community

In one of UT's MOOCs, Energy 101, only 30 percent of the course’s 39,000 enrollees have submitted assignments that received a grade. In May 2012, Time reported many courses have a 90 percent drop out rate. Energy 101 also lacks an ID verification system, so there is no way for the course to track whether students are being academically honest.

“The Energy 101 team has produced a truly interdisciplinary course that is accessible to students with a variety of backgrounds,” says edX spokesperson Dan O'Connell. “A 30 percent completion rate would be very impressive.”

For students that do carry on, edX’s grading system is automated. The Energy 101 Facebook page reflects this issue, with several posts complaining about incorrect answers. However, the page also conveys some course positives – many of the students' posts praise the course's content and state that it is among the best online courses they have taken.

Additionally, the page shows interaction between students and professors, a rarity in the realm of MOOCs. Most MOOCs offer interaction between participants and faculty on message boards, but according to a Stanford study, only 10 percent of registered users make posts on these forums. This points towards a bigger issue that MOOC advocates are trying to decipher: how to consistently build a community within the context of an online course.

Similar Course, Similar Problems

James Pennebaker is the chair of UT’s Psychology department. His Introduction to Psychology course this semester emulates some MOOC innovations, including massive online registration. But unlike UT's edX offerings, this class is offered for credit, and students must participate online at a regularly scheduled date.

This type of class is known as a Synchronous Massive Online Course. It has 750 students – far fewer than a MOOC – and boasts a much smaller dropout rate of two percent.

Pennebaker says the first iteration of the course featured rampant cheating, but he’s since added a team of programmers to detect students' test-taking patterns. 

Pennebaker agreed that large drop out rates of MOOCs was not a primary issue.

“There are two issues with MOOCs,” he says. “The first is a MOOC is incredibly efficient … but they are cold, and there’s not a lot of sense of community.

“The other big problem with the MOOC is that there’s just not a good business model right now, “Pennebaker continues. “You take the class, generally they’re free, and there’s no incentive to stay in the class.”

Pennebaker's course attempts to address these issues by splitting students up into “pods,” and charging $550 per person. By adding a fee, students are more likely to become accountable and less likely to drop out. Students in the pods can communicate with each other and discuss the content. But the course also has complaints about the grading method.

Results of a mid-semester survey revealed many complaints about the course’s recurring eight-question quizzes,  known as benchmarks. One student vented online that “if you get one question wrong you get a B.” Another stated, “What I need to read or know is never clear, and I always feel unprepared for the benchmarks … I really wish I had taken this class in the conventional method.”

But the majority of the feedback was positive. Over half – 58 percent – of respondents rated it as “much better” than other online courses they have taken. And 32 percent of respondents felt the course work was light.

Tomorrow, a look at MOOCs' potential and what UT is planning next.

Roy is a second year journalism professional track graduate student at the University of Texas.
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