MOOCs can reach a wide range of students.

MOOC–better known to some as a massive open online course–was the unofficial buzzword of the American Council on Education’s (ACE) Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. on March 4 and 5, and university presidents say that MOOCs could help expand learning opportunities to students and professionals.

During the conference, one seminar featured a panel of two MOOC platform designers and two university representatives who expressed their views on how MOOCs can enhance higher education without discrediting traditional brick-and-mortar institutions.

Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller said MOOCs can alleviate issues of scale and capacity that universities across the country are facing. One way to make MOOCs cost-effective is to continuously cycle the same professors and courses online, but expand student access.

Koller asserted that MOOCs promote self-paced learning, and in turn, provide a much more solid foundation for continuing education.

“We have seen a considerable improvement in learning outcomes,” she said. “In some ways, [MOOCs] transcend the way students would interact with an instructor.”

She estimated that approximately 80 percent of Coursera students already have higher education degrees, and that they take MOOCs to gain diversified skills to get a leg up over their job competitors. One of the greatest benefits of MOOCS vs. traditional courses is the uniquely rich, globally expansive social communities that develop among students. For the first time in history, students living all over the world are able to connect and communicate with one another at rates of lightning-fast immediacy.

(Next page: How college presidents view MOOCs.)

Koller noted that several MOOC professors from Coursera’s 62 partner universities are translating their online work into their traditional classes, as well. She said that often, students in traditional classes are asked to view their professor’s MOOC lectures for homework, so that class time can be dedicated to lively discussion about the previously viewed material.

Anant Agarwal, president of edX, agreed with Koller, going so far as to describe MOOCs as the “modern textbook equivalent.”

Agarwal explained that edX’s mission is to rethink and re-imagine higher education, and grant access to anyone who wishes to learn.

MOOCs promote “active learning,” as Agarwal described it, and said that the “big data” that MOOCs provide can shed light on impactful student behaviors. Direct answers to professors’ questions, such as, ‘How much time did individual students spend watching videos v. communicating on discussion boards?’ are answered with a few clicks of a mouse.

Duke University has been working with Coursera since last July, and currently maintains approximately 600,000 student enrollments in its MOOCs. Duke Provost Peter Lange explained Duke’s student and faculty perspectives of the partnership.

Lange explained that students enjoy global access, building communities with one another, and preparing for more elevated coursework. He also mentioned that some students are signing up for MOOCs they’re interested in despite feeling that they may not be successful in the course. MOOCs offer a low risk to those students: if they are unable to master course material, or decide that they don’t like the subject matter, they can drop out without detrimental consequences to their transcripts or bank account.

As for faculty members, Lange said that they also enjoy the global accessibility that MOOCs offer, but are particularly interested in the diversity of immediate, valuable student feedback.

Kevin Reilly, president of the University of Wisconsin System, noted that MOOCs can be used to not only globally educate individuals, but also to supplement traditional coursework.

While the University of Wisconsin- Madison has recently teamed with Coursera to pilot four not-for-credit MOOCs, the University of Wisconsin- La Crosse has already seen great success in a remedial math MOOC that has newly expanded thanks to a generous grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In the remedial math pilot program, after taking the seven-week course, six weeks of which are spent doing online work, 37 of the 38 student participants tested out of remedial math.

Reilly also spoke about UW- Milwaukee’s goal of addressing the evident shortage of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors needed to fill jobs in the Milwaukee community. UW- Milwaukee is currently working with Coursera to construct water-related courses to provide a pipeline to gain new employees.

“MOOCs could [help to] draw students into water-related majors,” he said.

Reilly said that MOOCs are a unique platform for advertising, as well. He suggested that MOOCs may help the United States achieve its “completion agenda,” and help in attracting students back to school in the 21st century.

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