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At Conference, Leaders of ‘Traditional’ Online Learning Meet Upstart Free Providers

Orlando, Fla. — A longtime online-learning pioneer sounded a note of frustration at a national cyberlearning conference here this week. The complaint was over the perception that MOOC’s, or massive open online courses, run by highly selective universities are the biggest drivers of innovation in online learning.

“The hyper-prestigious universities” are not driving the change, said Jack M. Wilson, president emeritus of the University of Massachusetts, who founded UMass Online some 10 years ago, in remarks during a kickoff panel at the Sloan Consortium’s International Conference on Online Learning. He said that institutions like his and others represented at the conference, which is in its 18th year, have been slowly improving the quality, credibility, and enrollment of online courses for decades.

Mr. Wilson suggested that some new providers appeared to think they’d invented something new rather than drawing on the experiences of earlier projects. And he noted that dropout rates in some MOOC’s are as high as 90 percent, with only a tiny fraction of students actually completing the material.

“If we had 10-percent completion rates at UMass Online, I’d be in the Massachusetts jail instead of the Massachusetts university,” he joked. He praised the new entrants for bringing attention to the value of online education, but said that “is not who has led online learning, or who is going to lead online learning.”

One of those MOOC pioneers, Sebastian Thrun, had a chance to give his side of the story in a keynote address on Thursday. Mr. Thrun is the Stanford University professor who landed on the front page of The New York Times when he co-taught a free course that enrolled 160,000 people, and he has since founded Udacity, a company working with professors to offer similar large-scale free courses.

Mr. Thrun admitted to the crowd that when he conceived the idea of opening his Stanford course to the world, he was “pretty much ignorant of your work.” But he struck a humble tone and told the audience that he has “admiration for what you do.”

He stressed that he and others at Udacity were working to quickly improve their platform and teaching methods as they learned from their mistakes. “I’ve been a teacher all my life, at Carnegie Mellon and Stanford, and I’ve never been taught how to teach,” he said, noting that even in his in-person classes he has always tried out different approaches. Now he has a chance to experiment with hundreds of thousands of students.

Udacity has found that “existing college professors are not our best teachers,” and that those with the least classroom experience appeared to adjust most readily to the online format.

That comment sparked immediate reaction from one online teacher on Twitter, though: “Wait, aren’t we all existing college professors/instructors? Wasn’t that a slap in the face?”

But a majority of participants here appeared more excited by the MOOC provider than skeptical of him. When the floor was opened to questions, one Ph.D. student in the audience gave Mr. Thrun her telephone number and asked for a job. And after his talk, Mr. Thrun was mobbed by dozens of participants, with some asking for his autograph.

Kevin Wilcoxon, an instructional designer at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, was among those in the audience who agreed with Mr. Thrun’s comments. Mr. Wilcoxon said that even though online education has been around for decades, about 80 percent of professors who try it model it too much on their classroom experience. “They want to take the traditional classroom online,” he said. “What Mr. Thrun’s message is, is you’ve got to make a clean break.”

Even Mr. Thrun agreed that MOOC’s would work only for certain types of highly motivated learners, and that free classes were not the answer to all of higher education’s problems.

“The medium doesn’t fit everybody, that’s very important,” said Mr. Thrun in an interview with The Chronicle after his talk. “Dropout rates for courses of this type are still on the order of 90 percent. Some people say it doesn’t matter because there are still 50,000 people graduating, but I think it matters greatly.”

“Students have vastly different states of knowledge, motivations, and objectives,” he continued. “If you don’t do a better job of lining up what we do in the online world with student objectives, prior knowledge, and learning styles, I think we’re going to continue having large dropout rates.” He said his goal was to get completion rates in free Udacity courses to about 50 percent.

During his talk, Mr. Thrun noted some new directions to come for the company. He said Udacity would soon announce a new way to make money, by getting “companies to finance the development of classes they care about.” And he estimated that the cost of running free courses was about $1 per student per course.

In the opening panel of the conference, José L. Cruz, vice president for higher-education policy and practice at the Education Trust, stressed that a major concern for traditional colleges offering online education is increasing access to high-quality education. He and other panelists said that many students need the hands-on approach and care that can be given only by a professor teaching a small group of students, not tens of thousands.

Mr. Young moderated the opening panel of the conference.

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