University to launch eighth MOOC despite retention challenges


On Tuesday, the University launched its eighth massive open online course — better known as MOOC — “Effective Thinking Through Mathematics,” which will be taught by mathematics professor Michael Starbird, 

“The real goal of education is to get people to be better thinkers, so that’s the goal of the course,” Starbird said. “I think one of the most important things a person can learn is how to think deeply over a longer, extended period of time, when you don’t have a bunch of things coming in.”

According to Starbird, his MOOC has been in development for a year, and he has filmed more than 50 hours of content for the course. Starbird said one of his biggest challenges was finding an engaging way to present the material.

“It’s not exactly thrilling movie productions,” Starbird said. “We were joking about inserting a car chase to keep people’s attention.” 

Starbird said he approached his MOOC as an experiment, focusing on the interactions between himself and his students.

“I sat there with [two or three] students on either side of me and I would pose a question — either a mathematical puzzle, problem or concept — and have them work on that mathematical issue, and I would comment as they were working about strategies of thinking,” Starbird said. “I don’t know the extent of which people who are just watching this will actively engage in that same way — which was my hope — or not. That part of the experiment is not known yet.”

The University launched four MOOC courses in the fall that had completion rates ranging from 1 to 13 percent.

In 2012, the UT System invested $5 million in edX, an online education provider, in order to bring MOOCs to UT. Last semester, UTAustinX, UT’s MOOC program, offered four classes. 

The courses are open to anyone in the world, and, although UT will not offer any credit for completed courses, students who pass can obtain certificates of mastery.

Engineering professor Michael Webber’s MOOC, “Energy 101,” had the highest completion rate of all of last semester’s MOOCs, at 13 percent. Webber said one of his goals in the course was to have a high retention rate. 

“[A high retention rate] was an explicit goal and something we pursued as part of our MOOC development,” Webber said. “We did that through social media goals and our use of Facebook and Twitter to interact with students.”

Webber said he has several ideas on how to improve MOOCs in the future. 

“I’d like to see it get easier to do a good job with a MOOC and have the MOOC technology work better with integrating assessments,” Webber said. “If you’re teaching a class and you cannot assess the students, then you’re not really teaching — you’re entertaining.”

Germanic studies professor John Hoberman taught a MOOC called “Age of Globalization” last semester. 

“These courses were, in terms of compensation, one sixth of my salary and one course off in the fall,” Hoberman said. “In terms of the amount of work required, that’s modest compensation, but you don’t go into this to make money. You don’t make a MOOC to make money.”

Hoberman said he considers his course a success and would potentially pursue a different MOOC in the future.  

“In a real sense, a MOOC that has something substantial to offer to all sorts of people is a kind of public service,” Hoberman said.