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UND explores offering free courses

GRAND FORKS - Free online college courses have been part of the national discussion on college affordability this year, but while universities such as Harvard agreed to the idea early on, the University of North Dakota has been a more cautious ob...

GRAND FORKS - Free online college courses have been part of the national discussion on college affordability this year, but while universities such as Harvard agreed to the idea early on, the University of North Dakota has been a more cautious observer.

Though it already has a reputation for relatively low tuition rates, the university is considering offering the massive open online courses, or MOOCs, because they broaden student access to education and remain free - at least for now.

UND administration has not officially talked about offering the Web-based classes, which are taught by instructors at elite universities and can serve thousands of people, but the possibility of swapping online lectures taught by faculty here with other universities is a realistic one, said Steven Light, associate vice president of academic affairs.

"It's a really intriguing idea," he said. "You can take advantage of the expertise of our own faculty, the fact that they are here on our campus, and get the benefit of some different content from somewhere else."

Although many details have yet to be worked out by participating schools - whether the classes will be offered for credit, how or if revenue would be generated, how beneficial offering the classes would be for less nationally prominent institutions - MOOCs offer some clear benefits and drawbacks.


Under the best direction, MOOCs can foster a sense of community and develop environments for collective intelligence, collaboration, creativity and innovation, said Richard Van Eck, associate professor of instructional design and technology at UND.

"I think their true value is that they force us to consider how those things work," he said.

The downside is they take the worst of what instructors do and amplify it, exposing any lack of planning for a class or the weaknesses of an instructor who is not naturally a good teacher, he said.

"Maybe that's offset by some of the natural values of the MOOC, but it doesn't solve the big problem, which is how do you teach people effectively," he said.

Van Eck thinks every educational institution should consider MOOCs, in part because of their prevalence. However, he said the courses are also "yesterday's pedagogy dressed up in today's technology" - a modern version of the factory model that assumes every student walks in with the same expectations, learns at the same pace and leaves with the same education, he said.

"It was a bad model then, and it's a bad model now," he said.

The concept of MOOCS gained national attention last year when professors at Stanford University founded Coursera, partnering with Princeton University and others to offer courses on a wide range of topics.

Since then, 73 universities and organizations have partnered with Coursera, including the University of Minnesota. The formation of other MOOC providers such as edX - founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University - followed suit.


New access

The success of online course offerings at UND has partly encouraged administrators to consider MOOCs, as faculty members have spent a lot of time improving and redesigning classes to better fit the online format, said Light.

"Just because we haven't had strategic conversations about MOOCs yet doesn't mean that we're not aware of what's happening and how they have the potential to change the delivery model in higher education," he said.

Swapping online lectures with other universities would be a realistic option for UND, and American Indian tribal populations would particularly gain from the courses, said Light, who is also the co-director for UND's Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy. He said the idea "intrigued" Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera, whom he met at a recent higher education forum.

"One aspect of the transformative power of MOOCs is the possibility of offering high-quality education to people who otherwise couldn't afford it," he said.

As UND mulls offering the classes, it has to consider whether it wants to offer classes and how it would adopt what it knows about teaching online to a massive scale, for students with an extensive range of abilities and backgrounds, he said.

"Anyone can throw something up online, but our brand at UND is teaching and learning excellence," he said. "If we go into the MOOC arena, we need to be responsible for ensuring that the product we provide is equal to the product we now provide on campus and online for our students."

Growing interest


While UND has not pursued MOOCs yet, few other schools have either, though more report they are considering them.

Of several hundred educators surveyed worldwide this year, only 13 percent of schools currently offer massive open online courses, but 43 percent said they plan to offer the classes by 2016, according to Enterasys, a technology solutions provider.

UND Provost Thomas DiLorenzo said MOOCs are just one avenue the university is exploring to provide a better and more affordable education and encourage on-time graduation, and its ideas extend beyond online classes.

"The quality of their educational experience is always our first consideration," he said. "That said, we are also working hard to keep a UND education affordable and a good value. We recognize the continuing concerns about affordability and student debt."

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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