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Moving toward MOOCs

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​Online classes have allowed colleges to reach more students, but most classes aren’t set up for an enrollment of thousands and they typically aren’t free. Not so with “massive open online courses” (MOOCs), which give anyone with an Internet connection free access to learning.

Several sites have sprung up offering MOOCs taught by professors from Stanford and Harvard Universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other big-name institutions. The MOOC platform Coursera has 33 university partners and has attracted more than 1.6 million “Courserians.”

“It’s the wild, wild West out there,” said Kae Novak, instructional designer for Front Range Community College (FRCC) in Colorado. “Nobody wants to be left behind.”

That includes community colleges. Most have offered online classes for years, but many are now exploring how to use MOOCs to bring professional development to faculty and staff and to help students, particularly in developmental education.

Learning opportunities for staff

FRCC held its first MOOC this summer as a professional development tool. “Introduction to Game Based Learning” attracted 301 faculty and staff members who wanted to learn more about using games, simulations and game-like environments to facilitate learning. Participants were encouraged to be part of the learning community by asking and answering questions and engaging in online discussions.

Funding to develop the MOOCs came from the Colorado Community College System as part of the Faculty Challenge Grant Program.

For many participants, it was their first time taking a MOOC.

“MOOCs really allow people to see what’s possible online,” Novak said.

EDUCAUSE brief: "What Campus Leaders Need to Know About MOOCs"

On Oct. 8, FRCC began its second iteration of the MOOC and will be running versions of it next spring and summer.

Because MOOCs are non-credit courses, most are designed for professionals who are “targeting a course because they need it for their professional development goals,” said Joanne Dehoney, chief of staff for EDUCAUSE, which recently released a brief on MOOCs.

“It’s not about credentialing. It’s about meeting a specific job requirement,” Dehoney said.

Adapting MOOCs for students

The challenge, then, is adapting MOOCs to serve students who need to earn credits and who may need more one-on-one attention.

Enrollment in traditional online courses at community colleges is usually capped at 25-30 students to ensure students receive a high-quality experience, said Christine Mullins, executive director of the Instructional Technology Council.

With MOOCs, there’s no limit to the number of participants. Last year, a MOOC hosted by Stanford University enrolled about 180,000 students. With that high number, there was no possibility of one-on-one interaction between the instructor and students. There also was no policing for cheating or consequences for not completing work. Only about 10 percent of participants completed the course.

Though accessibility is a hallmark of community colleges, it shouldn’t come at the expense of quality, Mullins said.

“It’s been extremely important for colleges to ensure online courses are comparable to or better than face-to-face classes,” she said.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation developed a grant program with the idea that the kind of open learning provided by MOOCs isn’t necessarily exclusive of high-quality instruction. The foundation is looking for colleges and universities that are creating programs that blend the two qualities to “engage a broad range of students in successfully advancing their general and developmental education,” according to its request for proposals. The courses do not necessarily have to be offered for credit, but they should “align learning outcomes, content, and structure” with typical course offerings at most institutions.

The foundation will announce the grant winners next month.

Experimenting with development math

In North Carolina, Wake Technical Community College plans to experiment with a MOOC in developmental math in spring 2013. For no cost, students will be able to navigate at their own pace through pre-algebra and beginning algebra, and monitor their own progress through directed self-assessments.

“We believe this large-scale online format will be a game changer in community colleges and in higher education in general and we think mathematics is the perfect place to start,” Wake Tech President Stephen Scott said in a press release.

The MOOC will prepare students for better placement test outcomes, but Wake Tech has a bigger goal in mind: to eventually eliminate the need for developmental math altogether.

Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland also has experience using a form of open learning. The college, along with a number of partners, received funds from the Gates Foundation for work on the online project Open Learning: Bridge to Success, which offers free and open resources to help adults transition to a college environment. There is an emphasis on assisting learners reduce the need for remediation in developmental math.

The Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER) creates awareness of open educational resources (OER) that colleges can use to make education more accessible for all learners and improve teaching and learning. Foothill-De Anza Community College District established CCCOER in 2007.

On Nov. 13, the consortium will host a webinar on MOOCs.

Though MOOCs are popular, they may not be right for every institution. Colleges need to assess institutional capacity and ensure that technical and instructional requirements can be met, according to the EDUCAUSE brief. Engaging instructors is also key to ensuring that a MOOC is a success for the student and the college, said FRCC’s Novak.

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