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Massive Open Online Courses pioneer in education technology

Published: Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 02:02

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 It’s a green light at the intersection of education and technology, as universities across the country are moving full speed ahead toward new models for an virtualized classroom.

 One popular model, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), gives thousands of students access to university courses online for free. Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) partnered to pilot MOOCs using the platform edX last April, and universities around the country have since followed suit. Many now offer their courses without the admissions requirements for these prestigious institutions, and, more significantly, without the price tag.

Like many other universities, Tufts is now grappling with the whether to offer MOOCs.

“Where do we want to place Tufts in enhancing our residential teaching mission, as well as thinking about ways in which we can engage the wider world using online technology, either by joining something like Coursera or edX or some other bigger MOOC?” University President Anthony Monaco told the Daily in an article published Dec. 4. “These are questions that were asking our faculty and students and trying to get a perspective and a direction of travel,” Monaco said.

One advantage would be promotional, according to Patrick Connell, Manager of Educational Technology at the Friedman School of Nutrition.

“If Tufts were to roll out courses and thousands of students took them, there would be exposure to some of Tufts’ knowledge and faculty,” Connell said. “Although, there are already upwards of 50 institutions participating so it’s not like Tufts is at the forefront of this. That ship has sailed.”

The provision of free knowledge to students all over the globe would be in line with Tufts ongoing mission of active citizenship, according to Assistant Professor of Computer Science Ben Shapiro.

These new platforms have raised questions about academic integrity, accreditation, returns on investment and revenue models that have yet to be answered, according to Connell. Shapiro also expressed doubts concerning MOOCs applicability at Tufts.

“One of the things that was alluring to me about coming to Tufts was the smallness,” Shapiro said. “If we’re going to go in the MOOC direction, we would potentially lose some of what makes Tufts special. There’s a lot of great teaching here, but a lot of the best teaching takes advantage of the smallness and intimacy of the classroom.”

Senior Sabrina Gordon predicted that money would be a large factor in any future decisions.

“Tufts will have to prove their worth, sell the fact that they are worth the money more so than they do right now,” Gordon said.

She added that lower-level educational institutions would be more at risk in future competition with a free option, especially if professors from prestigious universities taught virtual classes.

While MOOCs have certainly changed the conversation about the future of the education industry, the verdict is still out. Massive Open Online Courses are not the only model that will be competing in the future of education, according to Charlie Rabie, Professor of the Practice at the Tufts Gordon Institute.

“The velocity of change in this whole space is changing rapidly, and MOOC is a major part of it, but there are also other opportunities beginning to emerge,” Rabie said. “Some of these look more like the Tufts model — high-tech, high-touch — where you still try to keep the intimacy of the classroom, but you do it virtually.”

Many top engineers and professors in the Center for Engineering Education Outreach (CEEO) are currently exploring ways to tap into new advances in technology within a smaller classroom setting in order to enhance the learning experience.

“Even with a small class size of 20, in a full conversation you don’t understand what all people are thinking within a room because you don’t have time to hear what all people are saying,” Research Assistant Professor of Computer Science Ethan Danahy said.

Danahy explained that he is currently exploring ways to use technology to increase participation, including “flipping the classroom,” which uses online video technologies similar to those pioneered by MOOC platforms, but utilized on a much smaller scale. Danahy successfully “”flipped” his introductory robotics class this past fall. He recorded his lectures in small bites, which he assigned for homework, freeing up in-class time for collaborative group projects, during which he could offer students one-on-one assistance. 

“I was able to go in and engage with the students, learn who they were.…I learned their particular needs and was able to tailor what I was doing that particular day to what their interest and learning styles were,” Danahy said. “That style of engagement, for me, was an exciting change.”

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