ATLANTA — The 30,000 students who signed up to take Sam Shelton’s Energy 101 course online were more than he had taught in his two-and-a-half decades as a Georgia Tech professor.
“It’s unbelievable how this has taken off,” said Shelton, who’s semi-retired now.
He’s talking about a new type of online course available to the public for free without enrollment in a degree-seeking program. They’re called massive open online courses, or MOOCs, and they are shaking up higher education.
The wave of MOOCs started about two years ago as a variation on “traditional online courses” that are still evolving despite the name. MOOCs usually feature video lectures or animations that the hosting organizations decree should last no more than 12 minutes and are punctuated by quick quizzes in the middle and end.
“That’s the attention span,” Shelton said. “I don’t know if it’s gotten shorter these days or if we’ve just recognized it was never that long.”
Shelton likes that the innovative approach opens to anyone access to lectures by some of the best professors.
Suzanne Minarcine agrees. Although she teaches traditional online courses as faculty director of the School of Business at American Public University System, she’s also taken a variety of MOOCs for her own curiosity.
“The biggest advantage is that you do have a first-class curriculum taught (at least to some extent) by world-class faculty. I’ve taken classes from MIT, Harvard and the Berkeley College of Music at no cost,” she said.
Georgia Tech offers 15 MOOCs on the Coursera.org hosting platform, and Emory University has nine. The University System of Georgia struck a deal with Coursera in May along with nine other university systems to develop the courses with the benefit of Coursera’s experience on teaching techniques. A similar agreement was signed with D2L.
“I always said there ought to be a better way,” Shelton said.
As an experiment starting in January, Tech is offering a master’s degree in computer science completely online that is enrolling 100 or so students who meet standard admissions requirements. It will cost a fraction of a classroom-based degree and is available to students living hundreds or thousands of miles from the Atlanta campus.
Administrators figure it’s a good place to begin because the students are accustomed to spending time online and there’s really no need for hands-on demonstrations like in biology or nursing.
The Technical College System of Georgia is developing MOOCs of its own. Designed to help dropouts return to school, they’ll be remedial courses in math, first, and later in English and reading that are tailored to requirements for Georgia’s GED and college admissions, said Robert Keown, the executive director of the system’s Georgia Virtual Technical Connection.
“We know the requirements of the placement exam,” he said. “We’re able to build this to those standards.”
Registration for the courses will be limited to in-state zip codes because the goal is to help Georgians complete degrees so they can earn better jobs.
Completion is an issue with MOOCs because typically only one of every 10 students finish, according to Mike Abbiatti, the director of the education cooperative for the Southern Regional Education Board.
“Students come to MOOCs to find something out. Once they find what they want to know, they leave,” he said.
The University System of Georgia, which oversees the state’s public four-year colleges and graduate schools, has a similar mission to help the estimated 1 million Georgians who dropped out of college get their diploma. That is why it’s looking at the Coursera and D2L arrangement as a way to develop tuition-based classes for enrolled students rather than free MOOCs for anyone on the World Wide Web.
The next evolution of traditional online courses may be less expensive, more convenient and better adapted to students returning to finish degrees, said Houston Davis, the system’s chief academic officer.
“I think we want to challenge our institutions to think critically, are there courses we can do online?” he said.
One of hurdles to overcome is how to guarantee that the enrolled student is the person taking the online exam. In-person proctors can demand students present their ID cards, but ensuring integrity is critical to prevent the degree from becoming as lowly valued as “diploma mill” correspondence courses of the last century.
Administrators also want to figure out the ideal class size to provide sufficient faculty interaction. MOOCs have no limit, so individual interaction would be impossible when thousands take a single course, usually leaving students to help each other through social-media groups.
Figuring out the needed adaptions is why Georgia’s public schools won’t put entire bachelor-degree programs online soon.
“That’s very, very radical, and I think that’s pretty much down the line,” Davis said.
What’s more likely in the near future is collaboration between universities that have similar degrees. So, a literature student at the College of Coastal Georgia might take an online class from her Brunswick dorm taught by a professor at University of Georgia’s Athens campus.
Educators disagree about exactly how the explosion in MOOCs and traditional online courses will impact higher education. But they do agree it will have a big impact of some kind.
“No one knows where it’s going,” said Abbiatti. “That’s part of the disruptive nature. It has a life of its own.”