Teaching & Learning

The ABCs of MOOCs


The UW is experimenting with the elements of free online classes. What will this mean for the university? Here’s a primer on higher education’s latest trend.

On the bookshelf in his office, John Hawks keeps a toy woolly mammoth, its face turned in flight from a toy caveman, whose plastic hand brandishes a plastic spear. It’s hardly a museum-quality display, but the scene serves as a reminder of the forces that Hawks studies: adaptation and extinction.

Hawks is an associate professor of anthropology, and his specialty is human evolution. The focus of his career has been to ponder why the caveman survived and the mammoth did not.

Adaptation and extinction: Hawks sees these forces in the professional sphere as well as the prehistoric. He’d prefer that his career path evolve like the human rather than die out like the mammoth. In part, that’s why he volunteered to teach one of the MOOCs — massive online open courses — that the UW will offer beginning in fall 2013.

“The world is changing,” he says. “It’s going to be increasingly difficult for a PhD to be hired as a professor without having substantial ability to teach online.”

MOOCs are one of the newest trends in higher education. Universities offer classes online, for free, to anyone who wishes to take them. In February, the UW announced a partnership with the firm Coursera to create four MOOCs during the 2013–14 academic year:

  • Human Evolution, taught by Hawks
  • Markets with Frictions, taught by finance, investment, and banking professor Randall Wright
  • Globalizing Higher Education and Research for the “Knowledge Economy,” taught by geography professor Kris Olds and University of Bristol professor Susan Robertson
  • More Than a High Score: Video Games and Learning, with Constance Steinkuehler MS’00, PhD’05 and Kurt Squire, two School of Education faculty who co-direct the UW’s new Games + Learning + Society center.

The announcement sparked immediate interest. According to Jeff Russell, the UW’s vice provost for lifelong learning and dean of continuing studies (and the administrator charged with guiding its MOOC program), more than 1,500 people registered to sign up for the classes within thirty hours; by mid-April, that number was over 25,000, even though the university hadn’t yet set dates for when the courses would begin.

UW–Madison is hardly the first university in the world to launch MOOCs. Dozens of schools around the globe offer them. Coursera currently has relationships with sixty-one other institutions in seventeen countries, and it’s just one of the three major MOOC providers. There’s also Udacity, created by faculty at Stanford, and edX, a company spun off by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. UW-Madison isn’t even the first UW System school to offer a MOOC; UW-La Crosse created one in the spring of 2013 to teach remedial math.

As recently as summer 2012, UW- Madison was reluctant to get into the MOOC business at all — for reasons that are still relevant.

“We weren’t interested in being a show cow,” says Russell. “We didn’t want to get into [MOOCs] simply because all of our peer institutions were doing it. We wanted to have a sound plan and rationale, to create authentic, substantive classes — or else we knew it would be a train wreck.”

But during the last year, university administrators came to see that MOOCs fit within the UW’s core values, as expressed in the Wisconsin Idea — the ideal put in words a century ago by UW president Charles Van Hise that the university should spread its beneficent influence to every home in the state. In the past, the university seized on technology to fulfill this goal. When radio and television were new media, Wisconsin had shared its educational resources with citizens gratis though such programs as School of the Air. Why not online?

“I view this as part of the Wisconsin Idea,” says Hawks. “The University of Wisconsin has the opportunity to be a leader [in online education], so it should be.”

The program also fits within one of the goals that David Ward MS’62, PhD’63 set while serving as interim chancellor the past two years: educational innovation.

“The opportunity [MOOCs] afford us is to think about education in a much broader sense,” Russell says. “Our current structure and process is, for good reasons, to focus on the traditional residential student body. But only 15 percent of [American students] who are pursuing an undergraduate degree are at a traditional four-year program.”

Thus the UW is dipping a toe into MOOC-y waters. The four MOOCs launched this coming year mark phase one of a pilot program; phase two may include another three to six courses, as the university figures out how to make online education more effective. It’s essentially an experiment, an effort to learn as much as to teach.

“I would say that right now you’re just seeing the first wave of online courses,” says Steinkuehler, “which means that people are working on the bare bones of how to structure them, how to let people self-pace. I think that once we’re through this phase of nuts and bolts, you’ll see a lot of innovation.”

Adaptation or extinction: those, ultimately, are the forces that are causing faculty, both at the UW and other institutions, to take a hard look at MOOCs. Squire notes that if the university’s prime mission is to educate — to spread information and train people to think — free online courses offer the opportunity to serve more people at less cost than does traditional classroom instruction. And many of the elements that surround traditional classroom instruction aren’t intrinsically necessary to educating.

“Once you make information digital,” he says, “it doesn’t really cost the university much of anything to make it freely available. As a public, taxpayer-funded institution, we have to seriously rethink what our purpose is and whose interest we’re serving. If our mission is to educate the populace, maybe these structures we’ve created — courses, seat time, attendance — don’t inherently make sense. We have to seriously rethink them if we want to stay relevant.”

But the MOOC model of free education also raises challenges that the university — the UW in particular and the educational community as a whole — will have to answer before free online classes can make an impact on American higher education. The questions are as obvious as A, B, C, but the answers aren’t so simple.

A is for Access

The most apparent difference between MOOCs and other university courses can be found in the first letter of the acronym: massive. Traditional courses — even traditional online courses — are typically limited to tuition-paying students, but MOOCs are open to everyone, everywhere, who has access to the Internet.

This presents a technical challenge. In January, a MOOC taught by faculty from Georgia Tech — and supported by Coursera — had to be suspended when it proved unable to handle its 40,000 students. That the class had to be canceled was embarrassing enough, but to make matters worse, its title was Fundamentals of Online Education — it was an online course about how to teach online courses.

“There are a lot of issues,” says Linda Jorn, the UW’s associate vice provost for learning technologies and director of academic technology, and the person ultimately responsible for the technical end of supporting MOOCs. “We’re aware that a lot can go wrong and that we have to make the student experience a good one.”

In addition to the technical challenges, there are legal questions. In a traditional classroom, an instructor can assign readings from a textbook or journals at the library. But sharing material online could violate copyright, forcing instructors to either limit readings or seek out permission from authors and publishers.

“It’s a copyright nightmare to create an open-access course,” admits geography professor Olds. He could do as college instructors traditionally do and tell students to buy a textbook, but that would negate the open spirit of a MOOC, making participation difficult for the poor. “Say a textbook costs $80,” he says. “That’s more than a month’s wages in some countries.”

But those are just the practical difficulties of being massive. There’s an academic issue, as well. The course that Steinkuehler and Squire will teach is a version of a popular class they’ve taught on campus. “Our waiting list has a waiting list,” Steinkuehler notes, and she hopes that a MOOC format will enable her to teach more students than she currently can. “I would love to have ten thousand sign up,” she says. “I think that’s a very lofty goal.”

But many instructors have had trouble finding a way to engage the large crowds that turn up online, which may, in turn, contribute to the high dropout rate among MOOC students: typically, less than 10 percent of those who sign up for a course complete it. When Stanford offered a MOOC called Circuits and Electronics, it attracted more than 100,000 students, but less than 5 percent of them passed. Even Hawks admits that, while he’s signed up for a few MOOCs, he hasn’t completed any.

“MOOC proponents say this is fine,” he says. “You’re hitting people where they want to be. It’s free, and they’re getting out of it what they want to put into it. MOOC detractors say, how can you say that’s education, when 98 percent of students don’t finish?”

One of the key points those detractors note is that online classes don’t provide the kinds of face-to-face interactions that enhance the educational experience for students and teachers. But Steinkuehler cautions that such worries shouldn’t serve as an excuse to stifle innovation.

“There are things that face-to-face education can accomplish that online just can’t,” she admits. “But on the other hand, there’s a lot of what we do in face-to-face education that’s just chalk-and-talk. That can easily be done online.”

One of the most vital student-teacher interactions — and one that grows increasingly difficult as class sizes become massive — is grading students’ progress. Checking homework and exams is a time-consuming chore with dozens of students; it will strain the abilities of the most energetic instructor with a class in the thousands.

So when it comes to challenges, if A is for Access, it’s also for Assessment. With unlimited students, how can instructors be sure that people are actually learning what they’re being taught? Testing will be a challenge; grading homework will be virtually impossible.

“Assessment tends to drive instruction,” Steinkuehler says. “That’s the thing that belies what you think is important to the class. So we’ll have to figure out: what are the kinds of activities we can set up where we can see how well a student knows something, understands something, or can do something?”

B is for Business Plan

There may be less teacher contact online than in a classroom, but from the student perspective, MOOCs offer one advantage that traditional university classes almost never meet: they’re free. But this is one clear disadvantage from the university standpoint: it blows up a school’s business plan.

If you think of universities in transactional terms, they sell education (measured in credit hours and degrees) to students, who pay through tuition. In MOOCs, however, students still receive education, and faculty still go through all the labor of teaching, but there’s no payment. How does the university stay in business? Who will pay faculty for their labor? Where do dollars come from to finance the technical needs of a virtual classroom?

“The rule of thumb now,” says Olds, “is that it costs three times as much money and time and effort to create an online course — and to run it properly — as originally estimated.”

At the moment, the university doesn’t really know how much its MOOCs will cost. “Will they cost us $1,000?” asks Russell. “No. Will they cost us $1 million? No. It’ll be somewhere in between.” He calls the program’s price “the million-dollar question,” but that’s an exaggeration. Currently, the UW is planning for just half that: $500,000 in private funding, which the UW Foundation will provide to cover the pilot program. But this is only seed money to get the university through its experimental phase. How to make MOOCs sustainable for the long term is still an open question.

So if B is for Business Plan, it’s also for Budget — i.e., the university’s. Since MOOCs are free to students, they appear to solve the issue of the spiraling price of higher education. Since online education frees schools from costly overhead in buildings and maintenance, it appears to offer an answer to the spiraling budgets. But this, Olds warns, is mere illusion. Online courses don’t substitute for the work of brick-and-mortar universities, but add on to it.

MOOCs, he says, “are not a replacement for the university. They’re simply a platform for engaging students, to reach different audiences and offer them different experiences. They’re not a silver bullet that resolves the fiscal imbalances in higher education.”

C is for Credit

MOOCs may offer students an advantage in that they’re cost-free, but they also suffer one clear disadvantage: they’re credit-free. The MOOCs that the UW has created — indeed as with almost all MOOCs everywhere — give no credits toward earning a degree.

Of course, college credits aren’t inherently necessary to education. A student can learn without report cards and a GPA. But credits are essential for monetizing one’s education, to turning learning into something with financial value.

“College credits have real currency,” says Russell, “because they roll up into a credential” — that is, a degree or certificate, something that a student can show to a school or an employer to advance a career.

The MOOC model offers no such currency. And that’s important, because according to the U.S. Department of Education, a person with some college but no degree earns $25,000 less per year, on average, than a person with a bachelor’s degree. Currently, a fifth of the workers in Wisconsin have some college but no degree.

MOOCs could offer the opportunity to break away from the current credential model and form a new one that gives students rather than institutions the power to determine what those credentials show.

“Most credentials are controlled by universities,” says Steinkuehler, “but [MOOCs present] systems that might not be controlled by universities or K-through-twelve. If I were a student, and there were some way to show that I had made my way through some complex content online, then I hold the keys to my education. It’ll be interesting to see what the role of the university is in that context.”

And that points to the other C challenge: Change, which is inevitable. Online technology is exerting pressure on educational systems to evolve. That doesn’t need to be scary — it’s simply reality, and a reality that Hawks embraces as he looks toward his MOOC with enthusiasm.

“I have the opportunity to teach evolution on a scale of potentially tens of thousands of students. I could not ignore that,” he says. “It’s the kind of opportunity that doesn’t come along very often.”

John Allen is senior editor of On Wisconsin, a massive online (and paper) open magazine.

Published in the Summer 2013 issue


  • Mary Murphy July 9, 2013

    Terrific article – well-written and clear – I think that I understand this complex issue better thanks to John Allen!

  • Sheila Leary July 10, 2013

    Thanks for this Informative and timely article, especially for discussing the business plan and credit issues, which are often overshadowed by enthusiasm about access. All three should be considered thoughtfully in a MOOC strategy.

  • JIm McCaslin Brown August 12, 2013

    A great concise discussion of the MOOC opportunities and the issues with such a system. I will forward to my colleagues at Alaska Pacific University. A small university, such as APU, will have to decide how to handle transfer students who have completed MOOC courses and then wish to complete degrees.

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