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Online courses shaking up higher-ed learning model

  • Miami Herald
  • Published Sunday, August 25, 2013, at 7:38 a.m.

Measured strictly by size, the University of Florida’s recent Fundamentals of Human Nutrition class was a resounding success. The class, offered this past spring, was UF’s first foray into the online trend of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. The class was open to anyone interested, from around the world, and more than 69,000 students signed up.

For comparison purposes, UF as a university has a total enrollment of about 50,000 a year.

In other ways, though, UF’s MOOC – and the track record of MOOCs in general – is less impressive. With the courses generally offered free of charge (hence the “open” part of their title) some inevitably sign up simply out of curiosity, or because it allows them to listen to the lectures of big-name professors at far-away schools such as Harvard or MIT.

Students often have no real intention of doing the work. Completion rates are generally abysmal, with more than 90 percent of students dropping out.

At UF, tens of thousands of students registered but didn’t even watch one class presentation.

Also, if stadium-sized online classes are indeed a glimpse into the future of higher education (and many have suggested they are), how are universities supposed to stay financially afloat when they’re giving away their product for free? Another issue: MOOCs usually don’t include any college credit, so how useful can they be for students who want a credential that is recognized and valued by employers?

The ongoing debate over MOOCs is a microcosm of America’s higher education industry, which is now at an Internet-created crossroads. Across the country, online learning allows schools to expand their reach, but it is also threatening the traditional business model of how to deliver knowledge and also how much to charge for it.

Across all sectors of the industry – public, private, and for-profit – there is the sense that online learning offers the greatest opportunity for future growth. For-profit universities such as the University of Phoenix and Strayer University were the first to truly embrace online education, and their revenues soared as a result. Between 1998 and 2008, enrollment in U.S. for-profit colleges jumped by 236 percent, according to the independent advocacy group Education Trust.

Tailored for adults

Aside from their early mastery of the online platform, the for-profits excelled at marketing to adult, nontraditional students, as well as tailoring the educational experience to their unique needs. The University of Phoenix, for example, compressed its classes into five- or six-week mini-semesters, with the idea that it’s easier for busy adults to absorb one fast-paced class than to juggle four classes in a full-length college semester.

More recently, though, for-profits have been criticized for using overly-aggressive, car-salesman-like selling tactics to recruit students. The schools often charge higher tuition than public colleges, and the student loan default rates at for-profit schools are dramatically higher than at other types of colleges.

At the same time that for-profits have struggled, traditional public and private colleges have aggressively expanded their menu of fully online degree programs.

But some schools, such as the University of Miami, have been hesitant to join the mad dash toward offering fully online degrees. UF has a staggering array of graduate-level online degrees – 70 in all.

Ray Schroeder, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois-Springfield, says universities are now facing the same decisions that confronted the music and newspaper industries years ago when the Internet turned their whole operating structure upside down.

“Colleges and universities should be excited – this is an important change and movement in higher education,” Schroeder said, although he warned that online learning means colleges will face increased, and tougher, competition. Schroeder noted that well-known Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen predicts that about half of U.S. colleges and universities will go bankrupt during the next 15 years.

“There certainly will be a shakeout,” Schroeder said.

Training doctors

Davie, Fla.-based Nova Southeastern University was an early pioneer in the realm of online learning – the school began offering an online master’s degree program back in 1986. Limited by the technology of the times, that master’s degree in computer-based learning was entirely text-based, with instructors typing out a lesson and students responding with typed questions.

Flash-forward to 2010, and Nova had advanced tools such as “interactive teleconferencing,” which it used to train doctors in Iraq on emergency pediatric procedures. In a room located thousands of miles away, the Iraqi students practiced their techniques on plastic dummies, while Nova instructors at the Davie campus virtually looked over their shoulder online.

Where will things go from here? Perhaps the future will be something like the fully online (and bargain-priced) bachelor’s degree programs that UF will launch next year. State lawmakers in April approved a new initiative where UF will offer online bachelor’s degrees priced at no more than 75 percent of the university’s face-to-face tuition. With Floridians increasingly struggling to pay for college tuition, state leaders have pitched online classes as a way to rein in the cost of getting a degree.

But W. Andrew McCollough, associate provost for teaching and technology at UF, warns that online classes don’t automatically solve the college-affordability problem.

“There is no inexpensive way to develop quality online learning,” McCollough said. “If you’re going to maintain the quality you insist on, you need scale.”

That means online classes of 200 students, not 20, McCollough said. Regarding MOOCs, McCollough views the gigantic courses as an initiative to freely spread the knowledge of the nation’s best professors worldwide – but without awarding college credit.

Others think MOOCs will eventually shift to a for-credit model, thereby allowing students to take a sizable chunk of their college courses for free. But for now, only a handful of colleges nationwide grant transfer credits for a completed MOOC.

Paying for classes

At some institutions, the online classes taken for college credit are actually slightly more expensive than traditional face-to-face classes. That’s because the schools, in an effort to offset the cost of developing online courses, tack on an extra online-learning fee. Florida International University’s online fee is $160 for a standard three-credit course, added to the normal tuition of $615 per class.

Such fees haven’t slowed the popularity of online learning at the University of Central Florida, where an astounding 74 percent of students take at least one online course. Even with the fees, President John Hitt argues that the online revolution is saving students money.

Thanks to online courses, Hitt said, UCF is no longer constrained by the number of classrooms available at its Orlando campus. As a result, the university can offer more of the classes that students need to graduate on time, preventing them from having to stick around for an additional year.

“That’s easily $10,000 or so for a year,” Hitt said. “That’s a huge savings.”

UCF has built a national reputation as a leader in online education, and Hitt says he’s “very optimistic” about what the future will hold.

Administrators say online classes – perhaps surprisingly – are helping enliven the school’s traditional campus. Most UCF students aren’t fully online – they take a mix of online and face-to-face classes. But the scheduling flexibility of online classes has given students more time to hang out on campus and participate in student clubs or other activities, administrators say.

Online classes have also transformed the teaching practices of traditional face-to-face classes. At UCF, it’s common for professors teaching classroom courses to nevertheless use the online learning management system to post interactive activities for students. The standard “chalk and talk” lecture approach is fast disappearing, said Joel Hartman, UCF’s vice provost for information technologies and resources.

“There aren’t that many pure face-to-face courses left anymore,” Hartman said.

When UCF students rate their courses at the end of the semester, blended learning classes (combining in-person and online instruction) have received the highest marks. Fully online classes, and then traditional classroom courses, rank the next highest in student satisfaction.

“It’s not that face-to-face classroom is low, it’s that these others have risen to the top,” Hartman said.

At Florida International University, history professor Brian Peterson teaches both online and traditional classes. In his face-to-face classes, he also uses the online teaching platform – Peterson might give a 15-minute lecture and then break up the students into research teams, or they may evaluate each other’s written papers online.

“What we’re doing in class is interacting. … It’s making face-to-face classes better,” Peterson said.

Easier online

Still, Peterson has mixed emotions about the rise of fully online classes. He said he has noticed that students in his online classes seem less engaged (with less-frequent attendance, for example) and that they often sign up for online classes assuming the course will be easier in that format.

The course does end up being easier online, Peterson said, if only because he can’t push these unmotivated students as far.

“You have to set the bar lower online if you want to keep an acceptable number of students,” Peterson said. “Yeah, it bothers me, but I think that my job is to do the best I can with the circumstances that I have.”

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