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Can MOOCs Help Professors Teach Traditional Courses More Efficiently?

Using free online materials such as massive open online courses in traditional classes can help colleges teach more efficiently without harming students, according to a long-awaited report from Ithaka S+R, an education-technology nonprofit group, and the University System of Maryland.

However, the report notes practical barriers that might make it difficult for professors to incorporate MOOCs or similar materials into their classes without incurring other costs. Those costs might limit any gains in efficiency, according to university officials.

In their study, researchers closely tracked 17 courses at universities across the Maryland system that incorporated “interactive online learning platforms” into existing courses, including 14 that used MOOCs from Coursera. (Some courses used online software from the Open Learning Initiative and Pearson.)

In seven of the experimental courses, the researchers compared the student outcomes with those in sections without MOOC components; in the other 10, the researchers prepared case studies detailing the experiences of instructors as they attempted to meld the MOOCs with their own teaching.

Several of the experimental courses reduced the amount of time students spent in class with professors—an attempt to gauge whether interactive materials might allow universities to chip away at the cost of holding face-to-face sessions. Another goal of the study was to examine the costs of having professors teach their courses with online content that had been created by professors at other institutions.

The findings were largely positive. In the side-by-side tests, which involved large, introductory courses, students in the hybrid sections “did as well or slightly better than students in the traditional sections in terms of pass rates and learning assessments,” wrote the researchers. That finding “held across disciplines and subgroups of students.”

Faculty members, meanwhile, reported a number of benefits that came with using MOOCs, including “the ability to redesign classes without creating online content from scratch,” and “replacing textbooks with more engaging content.”

Not everything went smoothly. Using pre-made MOOCs spared the Maryland professors from recording videos and designing content of their own, but they “had to work through many types of implementation challenges, including fitting sometimes poorly matched content into their courses and technology-integration problems,” according to the researchers.

Redesigning courses to incorporate MOOCs ended up taking more than 150 hours in some cases, suggesting that making existing online materials dovetail with the needs of existing professors can take as much time and effort as building a MOOC from scratch.

There were also effects on students that, while hard to quantify, were arguably harmful. Students in the experimental sections often reported being less satisfied with their experiences, even if they learned the material just as well as students in the traditional sections. Many of them said they wished they’d had more time with their professors. “Students place a high value on their personal experiences with faculty,” the researchers wrote.

The authors nonetheless struck a positive tone over all, noting that using the online materials and reducing face time with professors did not seem to affect the academic performance of “disadvantaged or academically underprepared students.”

“Our findings add empirical weight to an emerging consensus that technology can be used to enhance productivity in higher education by reducing costs without compromising student outcomes,” they wrote.

Many Subjects, Many Students

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced the Maryland study in late 2012, as the MOOC wave was beginning to crest. The foundation committed $1.4-million to the project. Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit research group that has produced several influential reports about technology and higher education, led the project.

The final report arrives, more than 18 months later, as MOOCs have mostly receded from conversations about how online technologies might transform higher education. Professors continue to create and teach free online courses on the side, but there is scant evidence to suggest that MOOCs have changed much, if anything, about credit-bearing courses at universities.

The results of the Maryland study suggest that MOOCs can be useful resources for professors teaching a range of subjects to students with varying academic backgrounds. The case studies detailed in the Ithaka report include upper-level electives in English and studio art, a midlevel genetics course for biology majors, and general-education courses for first-year students.

In most of those cases, students and instructors found the MOOC material helpful. In a studio-art elective at Bowie State University, students were assigned to watch all the videos and complete all the assignments in a Coursera course called “Critical Thinking in Global Challenges,” created by professors at the University of Edinburgh. The course met just as often as it normally did, but class discussions and the final project revolved around the content of the MOOC.

Students complained that the MOOC “seemed like a separate course.” But they also reported that they “learned more in this course than a usual lecture course,” and the professor was left with the impression that her students “had better critical-thinking skills in this course than usual.”

Marguerite Weber used a MOOC from Duke University, “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue,” to teach an entirely different group of students: first-year students at the University of Baltimore, an urban institution with an “access mission.”

Ms. Weber is the university’s director of student academic affairs and academic initiatives, but she also teaches. Last fall she taught two courses, “Introduction to Literature” and “Introduction to University Learning,” to a group of just over 20 students, many of whom had been required to complete a “bridge” program the previous summer as a condition of being accepted by the university.

The professor held classes for each course once a week, which is less than usual. In addition, the students were asked to attend a weekly “MOOC session” at which they would watch videos and complete exercises for the MOOC under the supervision of a student assistant.

It went well. Ms. Weber reported that her students’ papers and oral examinations were better than they had been in the past, although she credited the coaching provided by her student assistant as much as she credited the Duke professors and their MOOC.

Asked in an interview if she thinks using MOOC materials might allow professors to teach more course sections by reducing the amount of time they spend with each one, Ms. Weber said, “I don’t think there’s enough evidence for that.” She added: “I think it’s theoretically possible, but I think the best use of a professor’s time is really giving more thorough feedback, especially for first-year students.”

MOOCs That Aren’t Free

For the Maryland system, the usefulness of Coursera’s MOOCs might be a moot point.

The company and its university partners allowed the professors to use their course materials free during the Ithaka study, but Coursera forbids people to use its courses “as part of any tuition-based or for-credit certification or program for any college, university, or other academic institution without the express written permission from Coursera,” according to its terms of service.

If a university wanted to use a MOOC from Coursera as part of a tuition-based program, it may have to pay a fee.

MJ Bishop, director of the center for academic innovation at the Maryland system, said in an interview that whether the professors continued to use the Coursera materials in their courses depended upon “whether we’re going to have access to the materials or not.”

Coursera was generous during the experiment, said Ms. Bishop, waiving licensing fees and providing lots of technical support. But she does not think it is “within Coursera’s business model to provide the kind of support they provided this time around” in future semesters. It is difficult to predict how such a change would affect the cost of using MOOCs at Maryland in the future, said Ms. Bishop, except that it’s likely to be higher.

The lessons of the Ithaka study are not really about MOOCs but about open educational resources, said Ms. Bishop. The Maryland system is now discussing how to continue incorporating online materials that its professors can use free.

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