Professor Jeff Hellmer conducts a Jazz Orchestra rehearsal at the Butler School of Music on Monday afternoon. Hellmer also instructs a Jazz Appreciation MOOC that is free to the public.

Photo Credit: Lisseth Lopez | Daily Texan Staff

Although many open-enrollment courses face high dropout rates, UT professors hope memory-management software that checks retention rates and interacts with students will make a new online class more engaging for interested students.

Massive open online courses, commonly known as MOOCs, are free online courses accessible to the public. The UT System offers MOOCs through edX, a nonprofit distributor of interactive online courses. In 2012, the UT System Board of Regents approved a $10 million investment in edX, and the System’s first four MOOCs cost upward of $150,000 each.

Though the System specifically created the Institute of Transformational Learning in 2012 with the goal of establishing UT as a leader in online education, MOOCs have also received criticism for their high dropout rates. According to data from The Texas Tribune, about 87 percent of students dropped out of System MOOC Energy 101. Other fall semester MOOCs boasted dropout rates ranging from 89 percent to 99 percent.

Leslie Hall, project manager at UT’s Center for Teaching and Learning, said memory management software Cerego adjusts review times to maximize a student’s information retention. Newly offered UT MOOC Jazz Appreciation will use Cerego technology.  

“Cerego is designed to help the information truly sink in by letting students practice their knowledge and skills in short, frequent intervals,” Hall said. 

Jazz professor Jeff Hellmer, an instructor for the Jazz Appreciation MOOC, said his course differs from other MOOCs because the combination of edX and Cerego allows students a more individualized experience. 

“Cerego allows for a personalized approach to learning, as it tailors the repetition of items to be learned based on the individual student’s strengths and weaknesses,” Hellmer said. “It is also ideal in that in a course such as Jazz Appreciation, it eliminates the need for testing over basic facts and concepts.”

According to Hellmer, although integration with Cerego has been successful so far, he sees room for improvement in the future.

“There’s the long-term challenge of devising ways to evaluate student progress on content that requires lengthier responses,” Hellmer said. 

Finance senior Joshua Sigala said he’s enrolled to take his first MOOC this March. The 10-week course, offered by Cornell University and hosted on edX, will explore issues of privacy and surveillance in an increasingly interconnected world.

“I heard a few people talking about [MOOCs] and when I googled it, I learned that these courses were free, so I thought I would give it a shot,” Sigala said. “I would like to learn more about different subjects that aren’t part of my major.” 

Hall said the University currently offers eight courses through edX and is analyzing its progress with hopes to improve current courses.

“We want to learn about what helps students be successful in a MOOC environment, and what they’re getting out of it, so we can continue to improve what we offer,” Hall said.  

According to Hall, education is constantly evolving with the advancements of technology. Hall said she was excited about her participation in the changing environment.

“I think the future will be more flexible and student-directed, with more options for choosing the types of courses and programs that take them where they want to go,” Hall said.  

Germanic studies professor John Hoberman will teach one of the four massive open online courses that UT is offering in the fall.

Photo Credit: Erika Rich | Daily Texan Staff

While a major university in California has suspended its massive open online course program, UT is preparing to launch its own MOOC program in September.

Partnering with online education provider edX, UTAustinX, UT’s MOOC program, will start with four classes in the fall semester: “Age of Globalization,” “Energy 101,” “Ideas of the Twentieth Century” and “Take Your Medicine — The Impact of Drug Development.”

UT is offering these courses for free to anyone in the world interested in the subject matter. Currently, 88,272 people have signed up to take one of the UT MOOCs. UT will not offer credit, but students who pass the course can obtain a certificate of mastery.

“The University has always made some of its educational offerings available freely to the public; MOOCs are the latest way that we can perform that service role,” said Harrison Keller, vice provost of higher education policy and research at UT. “Through these initial MOOCs, our faculty [is] experimenting with the possibilities of this particular format and the context for providing educational experiences to participants around the world.”

The UT System Board of Regents partnered with edX and invested $5 million into the nonprofit company, becoming the fourth school to partner with the company and joining the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

The University selected four courses to start in the fall and five more to start in the spring 2014 semester. The University has spent $150,000 developing each course, officials said.

“We want the University of Texas to be an international leader in the development of next generation learning,” said Steven Mintz, executive director of the UT System Institute for Transformational Learning. “I think it is extremely important that our faculty help design 21st century teaching and learning. We want to give them the opportunity, with peer institutions, to be the real leader in this area.”

Although UT’s MOOC program is preparing to start in the fall, San Jose State University recently decided to suspend its MOOC program for the fall semester. SJSU’s program started in the spring 2013 semester. According to SJSU’s website, courses were offered for credit to both SJSU students and members of the public for a fee of $150. The Los Angeles Times reported the decision to suspend the program was made after the majority of students failed the courses.

Howard Lurie, vice president of external affairs at edX, said SJSU’s program was administered through a different company and MOOCs are still a new form of learning.

“Does it work in all subjects for all students all the time? No, nor does face-to-face learning,” Lurie said. “This is a new paradigm shift, and there will always be progress. Progress is based on evaluation of failures.”

Keller said a similar decision from UT would require the faculty to lose interest in teaching MOOCs.

“I don’t see that happening on the near term because when you talk to the faculty who are working on these courses, they are asking hard, interesting questions,” Keller said.

Along with other programs, Mintz said the goal of the MOOC program is to find new ways of teaching for UT students, such as blended learning.

“Our goal, ultimately, is to improve and enhance the learning of students at the University of Texas at Austin,” Mintz said. “We are going to be developing a lot of interactive learning tools, and we’re going to integrate those into our face-to-face classes. It is a real exciting opportunity for integration, and we will see what works.”

Some of the professors in the MOOC program plan on converting their MOOCs into a blended learning course where students view course materials online before discussing it in the classroom with an instructor. John Hoberman, a Germanic studies professor who will teach the “Age of Globalization” MOOC, said he plans on developing his course into a blended learning class for UT students.

“A MOOC is not a substitute for the classroom experience,” Hoberman said. “A MOOC is analogous to a textbook. You don’t give up the classroom experience because a textbook is available.”

However, Keller said that the purpose of the MOOC program is to offer some of UT’s services to members of the public, and pointed out that the University has already blended learning programs.

“I think it’s important not to confuse this mode of delivery with the larger landscape of what we’re working on at UT-Austin,” Keller said. “UT- Austin is a leader on almost every dimension.”

According to Juan Garcia, producer of the “Energy 101” MOOC, the courses will work by combining instructional videos, quizzes and online interaction between students as well as with the instructor.

“Everything is designed to encourage the student to try,” Garcia said.

Executive director of the Institute for Transformational learning Steven Mintz speaks to the UT Senate’s general assembly about edX. courses Thursday evening.
Photo Credit: Aaron Berecka | Daily Texan Staff

Beyond its partnership with a nonprofit offering innovative online classes, the UT System hopes to continue its growth in the world of digital and interactive education.

Steven Mintz, executive director of the Institute for Transformational Learning, spoke to the UT Senate’s general assembly Thursday evening, where he said it was important that UT lead the world in an innovative transition of higher education.

“If we do not do it, somebody else will and we probably won’t like what they do,” Mintz said.

Earlier in October, UT joined edX after a unanimous vote by the UT System Board of Regents. The nonprofit organization, which offers online education courses, was founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last year. Since then, the University of California at Berkeley and the UT System have signed on to join edX.

The UT System pledged $10 million and four online courses to edX, but Mintz, who serves as the UT System’s chief edX liaison, said he wanted to see UT do more than provide those four courses online. Mintz said he wanted UT to continue providing more innovative, online classes for its students.

“Students who are in these large, pinch point, gateway, foundation courses are getting an OK experience, but they can get a better one in an interesting way,” Mintz said. “Let’s try to use some of our technologies to see if we can create something cool.”

Mintz said he wanted to emphasize that the idea of online courses was not being forced on faculty or students.

“In some places like California, there has been a lot of resistance to doing this,” Mintz said. “I think people are afraid that this isn’t about what is good for students, that it won’t be faculty driven and that it will come from up high in the administration. It won’t be that way here.”

Mintz said student involvement would be welcomed.

“I want to find ways so students can participate in the creation of new online courses,” Mintz said. “We’re going to try and bring these courses into the 21st century.”

Graduation rates are one of the problems facing higher education, Mintz said. When the UT System signed on with edX, Gene Powell, chairman of the UT System, said the partnership with edX would help increase graduation rates. Along with Mintz, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa also said he wanted the UT System to lead a higher education revolution.

“New technologies are positively impacting how professors teach and how course content is delivered,” Cigarroa said in a statement earlier this month.

“The University of Texas System will help lead this revolution and fundamentally alter the direction of online education.”

Printed on Friday, November 2, 2012 as: UT adds focus on digital education

UT System institutions will join the ranks of major universities that offer massive open online courses to individuals around the world.

After a unanimous vote by the UT System Board of Regents, the System announced a new partnership with edX, a nonprofit distributor of interactive online courses, Monday morning. The System will invest $10 million in edX and intends to offer four online courses through the platform by next year.

Founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last year, edX will include all 15 academic and health institutions in the UT System and the University of California at Berkeley as partners along with the founding universities.

UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said new technology positively impacts how faculty will teach courses and how students receive course content.

“We will use the edX platform already in place to improve the way our courses are delivered across our campuses, offering a variety of technology to enhance instruction, face-to-face classes, accelerated classes, hybrid classes and fully online classes,” Cigarroa said.

Cigarroa said the System also plans to use the platform as a supplement to large, entry-level classes by including interactive laboratories, online tutors and online forums.

“The aspect of edX that gives me the most personal satisfaction is its ability to provide more tools and more opportunities to help our students excel using a web-based skill set which they are already familiar with,” Cigarroa said.

The UT System regents have prioritized online and blended learning since last year, when they adopted Cigarroa’s Framework for Advancing Excellence, an action plan which includes online learning as one of its nine pillars.

The System also allocated $50 million last year to create the Institute for Transformational Learning, which is designed to support blended and online courses. The regents will fund the $10 million investment in edX from the Institute for Transformational Learning’s funds, $5 million of which will be used to help tailor the edX platform for the System and to participate in analytics of the online courses.

The other $5 million of the investment will go toward developing the four courses the System hopes to offer next year. EdX does not offer courses for credit toward a college degree, but Cigarroa said the System will work with faculty to develop specific courses that offer course credit.

Steven Mintz, director of the Institute for Transformative Learning, will serve as the System’s chief edX liaison.

Mintz said edX will help leverage new technology to enhance student learning and accelerate graduation rates while keeping costs down.

“EdX will help us envision a new model for public higher education for 21st century - an education that will be active, visual, virtual and above all, interactive,” Mintz said.

The University was previously in discussions with Coursera, another online course provider, whose participants include Stanford University, Duke University and Rice University.

UT President William Powers Jr. said the edX partnership will provide an important new tool to diversify undergraduate course options and increase student access.

“A critical feature of edX is that it’s run by academics,” Powers said. “This puts edX in an excellent position to develop rigorous courses that will be adopted by universities across America and around the world.”

The University currently offers a variety of online courses, including 54 online, self-paced college courses offered through University Extension, which caters to both UT students and individuals not enrolled at UT.

The University’s Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning also offers free online course content and educational resources.

Printed on Tuesday, October 16, 2012 as: Board votes to invest in new online courses

Classes with 200 students could soon expand to include thousands if UT follows through with plans to launch online courses open to individuals around the world.

UT is in discussions with Coursera and edX, mass distributors of free online content from the nation’s elite universities, to negotiate a partnership. If a deal is reached, individuals not enrolled at the University would be able to access and enroll in online versions of select on-campus courses for free.

Harrison Keller, vice provost for higher education policy, is spearheading the effort and said the mass distribution of free online courses will help draw new students to the University.

“Of Coursera’s students, three-fourths are outside of the country, and this signals what expectations are like for these programs,” Keller said. “We want to share some of the amazing faculty and educational opportunities with a broader audience statewide, across the nation and abroad.”

Keller said a partnership with Coursera or edX will be an experimental phase, and no credit will be given for courses. Effectiveness and further development of the online courses will be discussed after the University collects course and audience data from the test run, Keller said.

UT has not released any information about which courses will be distributed.

Massive open online courses are fairly new to higher education. Coursera and edX each launched within the last year.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard University make up edX’s higher education participants. Some of Coursera’s 20 participants include Stanford University, the University of Virginia, Duke University and Rice University in Houston.

Rice University Provost George McLendon said Rice is testing massive open online courses as a supplement to large classes to pinpoint advantages and disadvantages.

“Students taking classes like chemistry, which are often 200- to 500-person courses, are already doing distance education if they’re sitting past the fourth row,” he said. “Is it actually better to be in this giant class or is it better to have the same lectures made available in a different format on your own time and use class time for problem-solving?”

McLendon said Rice will focus on whether online courses will benefit its current students. He said Rice is not primarily concerned with how this technology will benefit individuals worldwide not enrolled at the university.

Rice is testing the program through an interactive programming course on Coursera. Currently, the course includes 50 Rice undergraduates and about 25,000 national and international participants.

UT currently offers 54 online, self-paced college courses through the University Extension program. Both students and individuals not enrolled at UT can take these courses.

The massive open online courses are not intended to be a substitute for University Extension, UT spokesperson Tara Doolittle said. She said University Extension classes are more comprehensive than instructor-led open online courses.

Students can choose to take University Extension courses for credit or no credit and must pay tuition to enroll. Courses offered include accounting, introductory biology and American government.

The University’s Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning also offers free online course content and educational resources.

The initiative to create the massive open online courses falls in line with UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s Framework for Advancing Excellence, an action plan adopted by the UT System last year. Online and blended learning makes up one of the framework’s nine pillars. Cigarroa reported good progress on the initiative at the Board of Regents’ meeting last week.

Kenneth Green, founding director of the California research group Campus Computing Project, has been analyzing online learning and said business models have yet to be defined. He also said it is not clear how individual faculty or institutions will benefit financially based on figures presented by Coursera.

“The best way to look at massive open online courses is that they’re a journey of discovery,” Green said. “There is certainly a lot of interest on the demand side.”

Green said other key questions surrounding massive open online courses include course completion credibility without accreditation.

The University is expected to announce its decision in the next few weeks, but funding and a release timeline are still under consideration.

Printed on Thursday, August 30, 2012 as: UT partnership to expand free online content