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SUNY and MOOCs A La Carte  
By Anita Reetz

On May 30, 2013 State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher announced that the system would partner with Coursera, the world’s leading MOOC (massive open online course) provider, to “explore MOOC based-learning and collaboration” (SUNY press release 5/30/13). Why?  Just two months before in March, SUNY’s Board of Trustees had announced “Open SUNY” intended to bring all online courses offered at all 64 campuses into one “shared online environment”. The news release enthused about expanded online programs, faculty support for development of their own MOOCs, a research initiative to assess student learning online and the quality of instruction, and the opportunity for SUNY faculty to license (and presumably sell) their instruction content. Why would SUNY, the largest comprehensive university system in the US, two months  later join with the world largest provider of MOOCS?

First, let’s describe a MOOC generally. Think of thousands of persons enrolled in a single course delivered in a series of mini-video lectures (average 12 minutes) that may provide additional course material (printed or online)l, that definitely has discussion forums and “meet ups” (self-assembled study groups) where one and all can join, that includes comprehension tests at the end of each mini-lecture, and overall grading for the course. Meanwhile, the course provider gathers huge amounts of data on how students use and perform in the course.

Second, take a look at Coursera, which now boasts 4.3 million learners in over 400 courses, and has contracted partnerships with 84 institutions in the US and abroad. Coursera, founded by computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller from Stanford, started in 2012 working with Stanford, Princeton, University of Michigan, and University of Pennsylvania. Twelve partners were added in July 2010, followed by 17 more in September 2012. In February 2013, the company announced another 29 partner universities. In May, 10 more U.S. universities, including SUNY, joined.  Add to that international partners, as well as places like the American Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Modern Art.  Coursera’s stated intent is to monetize (make money on) their MOOC venture.

What is Coursera selling?  Professor Koller, the enthusiastic 45 year old Co-CEO of Coursera, speaks of the “three pillars” of the students’ experience:  video lectures, constant practice and community. While videos are a passive student experience, video conferencing can offer interaction. There is no need for classrooms, no problems of room scheduling.  Studies show that the constant “retrieval practice” improves learning outcomes, so taking quizzes repeatedly if necessary, adds to learning achievement. With computer grading, peer grading, discussion forums and meet-ups, the MOOC design is deep into “meaningful feedback”. Community is generated in discussion forums and meet ups. Online, the bigger the class, the faster questions are answered. The diversity of enrollees in a course of thousands is cited as one of the most stimulating aspects of a MOOC.

While MOOC enrollees are watching, rewinding, answering quizzes, and chatting with each other, Coursera is mining data. In her TED (Technology, Education and Design) talk on April 14 this year, Prof. Koller laughed when saying, “In Coursera, EVERYTHING is recorded”. This includes the number of times a viewer pauses the tape, the number of rewinds, and number of speed-ups (indicative of boredom).  “We can look at the distribution of wrong answers to questions… Where errors accumulate, the course needs tweaking…We can test what works and what doesn’t...This can lead to improvement in traditional classroom instruction also.”  She added that MOOC professors report that they are learning from the experience of having a significantly more diverse student population. In terms of students’ learning, being able to retake quizzes and resubmit homework leads of course to increased scores, but more importantly, Koller said data show that if students correct for current performance, performance on their future assignments improves.

Win-win for “unbundling” Coursera’s MOOC.  Coursera initially imagined its market as selling MOOCs to millions of individual subscribers.  After studying their MOOC users, they found that most turned out to be degree holders who wanted to upgrade their technical skills in computer science, math and other quantitative subjects. Coursera was not charging for these courses – they were entirely free – although it did sell certificates of completion for $40 to those who completed courses (about 7-9% of enrollees), with the caveat that the identity of the course taker and certificate holder had not been authenticated. For college credit, of course, this was meaningless. To sell a MOOC and award a meaningful certificate, Coursera felt it had to be able to establish that the person enrolled was the same person who had taken and passed the comprehension tests.

Enter the paradigm shift in spring 2013. A new market appeared. By partnering with SUNY and the like, Coursera can sell its platform (a general term for both digital hardware and software) and the responsibility for giving college credit and authenticating student IDs rests with the educational institutions themselves. Universities with open courseware, which includes most major educational institutions, can increase impact and efficiency by accessing Coursera’s products and know how: the videos, how to produce video lectures and run the courses with their various assessments, homework, discussion forums, and the like. Thus, the “unbundling” of Coursera’s MOOCs is a win-win for the company with a bright and expanding institutional market and for the institutions who can buy a la carte the components they want without dismantling what they already have.

 Chancellor Zimpher said in her May press release that working with Coursera promises “to increase educational access, instructional quality and exposure, and degree completion”.  In other words, more courses will be available online to SUNY students.  The back-log of students waiting to take required courses will diminish when those courses are available for credit online. Feedback from the MOOC users, with the help of Coursera’s ability to analyze data, can inform instructors of the strengths and weaknesses of their presentations and assessments. Furthermore, the contract includes special payoffs to faculty members in the form of help to create their own MOOCs, and to experiment with “blended learning” that combines the best of the in class approach with the best of technical enhancements like video lectures. The press release further noted “Whether creating, modifying, or adding to their curriculums, SUNY faculty will have instructor-to-instructor interactions and discover best practices from a diverse community of education professionals.” #

Anita Reetz has taught in Japan, California and Africa and brings her current expertise to Anacortes and Seattle in Washington.



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