University expands global reach with Massive Open Online Courses

By MaryCate Most

The University is in the process of globalizing its curriculum, which will offer more classes to hundreds of thousands of “participants” from all but four of the 195 countries around the world.

Adam Fein, assistant head of programs and services at the Office of Online and Continuing Education, said this globalization, in large part, is due to the recent expansion of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, which offer free online courses to participants from around the world.

“We want to expand the reach of our campus,” Fein said. “We want to expand the reach to people who may not have an opportunity for this type of education, but also not lose the core focus on our residential education.”

In 2012, the University began its partnership with Coursera, a website which hosts MOOCs from universities across the nation, leading to a rapid expansion of online education capabilities, Fein said. The strength of the University’s MOOC program stems from years of online education infrastructure, said Faye Lesht, head of the division of academic outreach at the Office of Online and Continuing Education.

Fein described the quick integration of MOOCs as a result of the University’s already established online education programs.

“We have had up to 20 years of working with (online courses) before any of this,” Fein said. “We were able to get up and running fairly quickly with very high quality MOOCs with Coursera because we had a lot of the structure in place to be set up for success as we thought about the differences.”

MOOCs are progressing both at the University and around the world, Fein said. In a news release on Oct. 31, Coursera announced that it is partnering with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to create “learning hubs” around the nation. This partnership will assist in providing Internet access to those who previously lacked access. Georgia Institute of Technology also recently announced that it would offer a MOOC master’s degree in computer science, for about one-third of the price of a residential master’s degree, Fein said.

Not everyone is enthused by the rapid development of these courses. In a panel meeting Tuesday, University faculty and administrators met to discuss some concerns regarding MOOC growth at the University.

“There has been a bit of a backlash to MOOCs, a bit of a concern that MOOCs will put faculty out of work,” said Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “In general, the intent is not to replace faculty. Certainly a MOOC is open, but in many MOOCs, they are copyright protected and available for a certain timespan.”

Rob Rutenbar, MOOC and on-campus professor, said another concern is that only small percentages of participants actually complete the MOOCs during that timespan. In his course VLSI CAD: Logic to Layout, only about 400 of the 17,000 students that signed up finished the course, he said. But Rutenbar was still encouraged by these results.

“There are many ways to deliver educational value in a MOOC — it is not all about the final,” he said. “When you actually talk to some of (the MOOC participants), you find that they find educational value in a variety of ways.”

Lesht sees online education as advantageous to a university’s residential education as well. By incorporating the multimedia aspects used in online education in the classroom setting, the Office of Online and Continuing Education seeks to further enrich on-campus courses.

“One of the stipulations in what we are looking for with this is that portions of the courses also need to be used for campus instruction,” Lesht said. “In other words, they are not isolated. Material can’t be just for Coursera, it needs to be integrated into the curriculum.”

At the University, every year has brought a steady growth in the number of instructional units offered exclusively online, Lesht said. In the past five years, the percentage of exclusively online courses offered at the University has jumped from 1.4 percent to 5.3 percent — and that doesn’t account for any of the classes that are taught in part in the classroom and in part online, she said.

Online education offers a unique solution to people around the world in search of higher education without the burden of attending a University and plummeting into debt, Fein said.

“So many of our students in the degree programs have families, or it just doesn’t make sense for them to leave their job,” Fein said. “But they know they can count on Illinois — they know they can get a high-quality degree even though they can’t physically come here.”

Lesht said the Office of Online and Continuing Education has worked carefully to review each proposed online course in order to ensure that the University’s quality of education carries over into their online courses as well.

“We are doing what is appropriate for Illinois — we have been all along,” she said. “Quality has always been very important here, so we have this infrastructure that supports high-quality online courses.”

University professors are beginning to see their impact all around the world, Fein said.

For example, he said, Jose Vazquez, clinical professor of economics, taught more people in his MOOC than he ever taught before in residential and online classes combined. In one MOOC class, he taught 37,000 participants.

“And if Dr. Vazquez does some pretty incredible videos for the Microeconomics MOOC, we want to integrate those videos into his traditional online and face-to-face courses too, because they are well done and they communicate the learning objectives, no matter what the audience,” Fein said.

Chancellor Phyllis Wise addressed the University’s expanding educational influence in a blog last spring.

“Large numbers have impact, and the volume (of students) is something we cannot ignore,” Wise said. “We are beginning to see the enormous potential that the scale of contact offered by this platform offers.”

MaryCate can be reached at [email protected]