UW-L will study MOOCs with Gates Foundation grant

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse will look back at the college’s popular online math class to examine how the new way of learning might better benefit students. UW-L has been awarded a $20,000 grant to study the effectiveness of its first massive open online course (MOOC).

The university will study MOOCs with a Gates Foundation grant.

Thousands of curious learners of all ages signed up for UW-L’s MOOC, even though the university introduced the free online class as a way to prepare students for college-level math. Research will shine a light on the MOOC model and give staff the ability to know if it really works, said Bob Hoar, UW-L associate vice chancellor of academic affairs.

“I’m always interested in trying to figure out ways to tell whether or not the tools that we use to support learning actually have an impact,” Hoar said.

UW-L was the first campus in the UW System to introduce the free online format. UW-Madison has since followed suit with its own selection of MOOCs.

With the new grant from Athabasca University’s MOOC Research Initiative, UW-L educators can follow the educational experience of every student who signed up for the pilot.

UW-L’s pilot MOOC and Athabasca’s grant program are both funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

See page 2 for details on how MOOCs will impact the student-teacher relationship

“There’s no turning back technology and how it’s going to impact our relationship with our students, and how our students relate to the material,” said Natalie Solverson, UW-L director of institutional research.

Both Hoar and Solverson will research last winter’s MOOC. Officials hope to have a preliminary report ready by December, in time for the national MOOC Research Conference at the University of Texas in Arlington. Research is scheduled to finish by April.

UW-L researchers will be able to track every quiz, every assignment, every click from last year’s pilot, comparing MOOC students from a wide a variety of backgrounds to see how they performed, Hoar said.

Students ranged in age from 11 to 85. Some signed up for the refresher in college-level math. Others came out of curiosity, or to learn enough geometry and algebra to help with homework, Hoar said.

“There was a wide range of reasons why people wanted in,” Hoar said. “That’s one of the things we’re going to try to break down.”

Researchers will compare a student’s performance with his background and reasons for taking the class, Solverson said.

“We can start looking at how those patterns might come together,” Solverson said.

The university developed the MOOC pilot with grant funding, but has continued to offer the free online course. People can still sign up for the summer-fall MOOC currently in session or for future classes on the university’s website.

No need to worry about getting caught up, Hoar said. People new to the MOOC can watch old lessons online.

The main goal of the research is to help educators tailor the course to meet the needs of students, and to help MOOC learners find success, Solverson said.

“That’s an excellent outcome for us,” Solverson said.