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Who Benefits From UT's Massive Open Online Courses?
Using edX to increase brand awareness and exposure for UT is a primary goal of the university’s foray into online courses. ";

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. Read Part One here.

So what it UT getting for its $5 million investment in edX? 

UT Psychology department chair James Pennebaker describes the money spent on edX as a "great investment." He isn't certain how education will look in the near future – but he said no one has that answer. 

"UT and any serious university has to be revolutionary in its thinking,” Pennebaker says. “We have to look forward to new technologies and teaching strategies.”

Marni Baker Stein, chief innovation officer at UT's Institute for Transformational Learning, says that halfway through their initial semester, UT’s edX experiment has been a success because they, “extend and expand university brand and awareness of UT expertise.”

“If you think about it, the most awesome asset that a MOOC has going for it is the audience that it attracts,” Baker Stein says. “How do you leverage that community as a knowledge network? Not just to serve them lectures, but to bring them actively into the process of learning and networking and producing ideas as this enormous, global crowd. That’s what’s exciting about MOOCs.”

Not everyone is as excited. Some educators see MOOCs as fundamentally opposed to the core concepts of higher education.

In April of this year, philosophy professors at San Jose State University was asked to pilot an edX offering from Harvard on social justice. The philosophy department refused.

“There is no pedagogical problem in our department that [the course] solves, nor do we have a shortage of faculty capable of teaching our equivalent course,” the department wrote in an open letter. “We believe that long-term financial considerations motivate the call for [MOOCs] at public universities such as ours. Unfortunately, the move to MOOCs comes at great peril to our university. We regard such courses as a serious compromise of quality of education and, ironically for a social justice course, a case of social injustice.”

Baker Stein and Pennebaker both admit that MOOCs have issues, but the problems they see are less fundamental, and more aligned with implementation and delivery.

“These MOOC platforms – whether it’s edX or Coursera – are really in their early stages, and the user experience is one that is really evolving and needs to evolve because it’s not yet perfect,” Baker Stein says.

Pennebaker says that online courses are the future of education and that UT's investment in MOOCs is a critical one. He believes the biggest gains UT is getting from MOOCs is information on student learning outcomes.

“I’m not biased,” he says. “My attitude is ‘Show me the numbers.’ Show me evidence that any technique is working … We have to be cold and scientific to see what works. So if you show me another method that works better than mine, I’ll dump mine in a minute. I’m not a true believer.”

This spring UT will be offering five new MOOCs, although only four are currently listed. edX spokesperson Dan O'Connell expects the courses’ roster sizes to be “robust.”

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
Roy is a second year journalism professional track graduate student at the University of Texas.
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