Spooked by MOOCs: UVA tip-toes into online education

Online education is a touchy subject at UVA. As the university prepares to offer 11 MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) this fall, the "unpleasantness" of last summer looms over the enterprise.

Indeed, when former Rector Helen Dragas and Vice-Rector Mark Kington made the decision last summer to oust UVA President Teresa Sullivan, sending the University community into turmoil and creating one of the worst PR disasters in UVA history, it, in part, was over Sullivan's alleged failure to move ahead fast enough with online education. As emails revealed, Dragas believed the University "couldn't afford to wait" on implementing an online education program, citing Harvard and MIT's $60-million investment in online course platform company edX, and that administrators and academics like Sullivan were dragging their feet.

Ironically, Sullivan had already signed off on a partnership between UVA and a company called Coursera that summer to begin offering online classes. The attempted coup was a failure. Sullivan was reinstated, and the plan to enter into the world of online education moved forward. In January 2013, UVA offered three experimental MOOCs.

Still, the traumatic events of last summer reverberate at the University, and some professors are moving ahead with the new technology with caution.

"The University of Virginia went through a horrific leadership crisis in part because of disagreements about the value and pace of online education," says English professor Bruce Holsinger. "I'd like students in the MOOC to be aware of these debates and contribute to them in discussion forums, using our class (and other MOOCS) as test cases for the nature and value of the medium."

Holsinger, who'll be offering an online class called "Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction," says he's "been stuck" over the last two years by the polarization of opinion about online education, with people like New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and Stanford professor and Coursera founder Daphne Koller saying it could lead to a kind of educational utopia, while prominent blogger Aaron Bady and UVA's Siva Vaidyanathan, chair of the Department of Media Studies, say it will undermine traditional education.

Holsinger says he'll be providing links to stories and editorials about the rise of MOOCs, and he's hoping that students will use threads on the discussion forums to consider the role of online education in their own lives and how their experiences do and don't relate to what they're reading in the media.

"I don't want the class to get too 'meta,'" he says, "but I do want it to be self-aware about some of the institutional, economic, and political issues surrounding MOOCs as a particular mode of online education."

"The nation, and the world, are in the early stages of a historic transformation," wrote the authors of a Wall Street Journal article that Dragas passed along to Vice Rector Mark Kington, "in how students learn, teachers teach, and schools and school systems are organized."

How, exactly, it will transform higher education is still uncertain.

"As far as I'm concerned, this is pure public service," says UVA politics professor Larry Sabato, who will be offering a MOOC of his own this fall. "People need to realize that with this kind of business model applied to all courses, universities would follow many news organizations into oblivion."

Indeed, as the authors of that Wall Street Journal article noted, there is "no revenue stream and no business plan to sustain" this kind of free online education at universities and colleges.

Indeed, at UVA they are taking baby steps into the arena, and spending a good deal of time emphasizing the fact that MOOC offerings are designed to "enhance" the learning experience for students at the university, rather than some grand plan to sell credits or UVA degrees to the masses.

"I think it can be seen more as a trend of trying to experiment with different forms of technology to enhance the on-grounds student learning experience," says Kristin Palmer, UVA's new director of online education. "I would anticipate that we'll continue pursuing options to integrate technology and innovative teaching practices into our residential courses."

For instance, UVA is emphasizing something called "flipping the classroom," in which large-format lecture classes are produced online, allowing students to watch them any time, and then allowing professors to spend their time working with on-grounds students in smaller group settings.

Of course, it might also be called "eliminating the classroom." At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, online course offerings are radically changing the way some professors structure their on-campus classes. The big shift: far fewer in-class lectures. Since most of them are pre-recorded and can be watched by students at any time, professors have had to think less about the content of their MOOCs, and more about what to do with students throughout the semester

"Class will become a time for activities and also teamwork," the UNC prof teaching the MOOC told InformationWeek, describing a college bowl-like competition, a murder mystery night and a scavenger hunt, as ways he planned to keep students engaged in the material from the lectures.

Indeed, once the MOOC cat is out of the bag, it's anyone's guess what will happen. Sabato, for instance, whose MOOC will draw from his forthcoming book, The Kennedy Half Century, admits he has no idea how this experiment will turn out.

"All I can tell you is that we're excited to reach people all over the world who are interested in President Kennedy," he says, "and we are doing the best work we possibly can with the time, energy, and resources that we have available, recognizing that the MOOC is layered on top of everything else we need to do for the general public and the UVA students who are paying tuition."

To that end, Sabato says he's engaged a local film company, Palladin Media Group, to produce his MOOC, and he estimates that his staff at the Center for Politics is easily spending half of every day, including weekends, focusing on preparations for the online class.

"A MOOC, done right, is very costly to produce," says Sabato. "The production values must be high if anyone is to sit and watch hours of a college professor's lectures."

And there's another dynamic at work here– the massive potential of MOOCs as a PR platform for universities, and for individual professors.

"I'm conscious of the fact that thousands of people will get their first real impression of my beloved University via this course," says Sabato. "I want that impression to be a good one."

Sabato, however, doesn't believe that MOOCs are any substitute for the real in-class, on-grounds experience at UVA.

"Students cannot possibly receive the same quality of instruction," he says.

But that may not be the point. The online format, which, like TV, is a broadcast format that can reach thousands, even millions of people. Potentially, MOOCs by Sabato and Holsinger could go "viral" and become quite popular. Then what?

In just three days, 1,500 students signed up for Holsinger's MOOC, and he estimates that 10,000 to 25,000 could be signed up by the time the class starts in October. Like Sabato, Holsinger is using the format in creative ways, recording segments at different locations around Grounds, including Edgar Allan Poe's room, and incorporating a narrative with plots and subplots.

MOOCs at some universities have already broken records. At Duke, for example, 170,000 students signed up for a Coursera offering on a popular logic and critical reasoning class called "Think Again: How to Reason and Argue," and the lectures were viewed 4 million times.

Follow the money

In addition to money from the University, and from those who back the Center for Politics, Sabato says he's made a "substantial" donation himself to make sure his MOOC is done well. According to Palmer, typical MOOCs cost approximately $3,000 for a finished/final cut hour of video, and she estimates that Sabato's MOOC will be between 10 and 20 hours. 

"There is no standard on the Coursera platform, and there are courses with hundreds of hours of content up to 20 weeks long in duration," says Palmer, "but that type of investment does not make sense for UVA at this time."

Indeed, while universities might not yet have a workable business model to offer online classes for a profit, companies like Coursera and edX might. A class with hundreds of hours of content at $3,000 an hour, multiplied by 10 or 20 classes offered at a typical university–– you do the math. While Palmer says that money doesn't all go to Coursera (she mentions teacher assistants, copyright purchases, productions costs, etc.), it's certainly enough money, multiplied by the number of schools jumping into online education, to create a huge new industry.

Indeed, Coursera was founded in late 2011 by a couple of Stanford University computer science professors, and already has nearly 4 million registered users, nearly a million just in the last several months. Other companies like edX, Udemy, and Udacity have all jumped in on the action. Like so many Internet-based companies, the road to generating real profits is a work-in-progress, but with all those eyeballs locked down it's only a matter of time before they figure it out.

Top-tier schools may also start charging for online courses and handing out degrees. Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania all offer undergraduate and graduate degrees obtained mostly by taking evening, weekend, and online courses, at a price considerably cheaper than paying full tuition. You still have to apply to Harvard, of course, and the degree requires some on-campus classes, but you get the picture. As the price of education soars, and universities themselves struggle to contain costs, it could be tempting to put degrees up for sale on the global market.

Meanwhile, online education companies and lower-tier schools are scrambling to invent new business models. For example, lower-cost universities are considering bundling courses offered by companies like Coursera, and students could graduate with cheap degrees having technically taken classes at MIT and Harvard. Other ideas include offering not MOOCs, but SPOCs (small private online classes), which would feature popular, prestigious online classes offered at premium prices. There's even an online education company out there called Oplerno, which hopes to attract poorly paid but effective teachers by making sure that 80 to 90 percent of what students pay for their online courses goes directly to the teacher.

Still, like Sabato, Holsinger likes to think that the online thing won't totally bring the smack-down on in-class instruction.

"Teacher-student interaction and exchange are at the heart of liberal arts education, and it's difficult for me to see how these dimensions of in-person pedagogy can be scaled up to the level of MOOCS," says Holsinger. "A series of pre-recorded videotaped lectures and quizzes, no matter how elegant or well-designed or well-intentioned, can't substitute for the immediacy of the classroom."

Online education, indeed, appears to be a revolution, one that could make some people very rich.

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Generally, activities that do not have clear barriers to entry do not create economic value. They may nevertheless have social value but no clear economic gain. Thus the only clear economic investment I can see in MOOCs is for benefiting the University's brand, but that will be a loss leader if it works. Comparisons with the declining news and music industry seem apt.

Much of the economic value of a University is in its network and brand so any MOOC business or class that attempts to retain these should do better. Throwing all classes on the Web in an unstructured manner should be much economically less valuable than a Facebook-like approach where people and their friends are connected online, and to their physical Universities, in some dense pattern of connectivity.

Connelly -- UVA Computer Science

Either somebody snuck into my dad's garage and put a Cookie Monster sticker on the cement floor in a conspicous location where I was sure to notice, or my dad or step mom put it there themselves! What's going on!!??


In my opinion this is a great post about online education.Online education play an important role in the daily life.Thanks for this great sharing.

That's cool..It is true that online education plays great role but i think nothing is more effective and comprehensive than in class lecture system...but It's also necessary to have online education as well in some respect ,those who lives far distance they need online eduction..thanks