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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Massive Open Online Courses pioneer in education technology

Its 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 its 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 were going to go in the MOOC direction, we would potentially lose some of what makes Tufts special. Theres 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 dont understand what all people are thinking within a room because you dont 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.

According to Danahy, summer classes at Tufts are entering the third year of serving as a pilot program for virtual classes. Some professors are experimenting with hybrid models, in which the class meets occasionally but the majority takes place remotely.

At the Tufts Gordon Institute for Engineering Management and Entrepreneurship, professors such as Charlie Rabie are developing new models that embrace the use of virtual technologies. As part of Rabies Entrepreneurship and Business Planning class, graduate students engage in semester-long group projects, but traditionally struggle to find time and classroom space on campus, as they often work during the day and far away from campus. This semester, Rabie formed virtual meeting rooms to supplement the face-to-face time.

We now have a private meeting room for each of the teams, Rabie said. They can video together and share documents using white-boarding capability. All of these capabilities are within our Adobe product. For people who dont have [many] option[s], this is really quite attractive.

Additionally, online videos of top professors across many fields explaining difficult concepts can be a resource for professors and students to supplement in-class learning.

Its a really good resource for another perspective on the same kind of stuff, junior Nathan Tarrh said.

Its an [augmentation] of what students can get in the classroom. I think it will make me a better teacher, Shapiro added.

Other organizations are embracing new models that increase the availability of higher education, while avoiding the massive scale of MOOCs in order to address issues such as academic integrity and accreditation. One startup,, has partnered with schools including Duke University, George Washington University, American University, Emory University, University of Notre Dame, Northwestern University and Brandeis University. 2U Inc. develops technology platforms that support the infrastructure, logistics and initial funding for partner universities. This allows the universities to offer their courses for credit online in the form of full-degree programs, as well as the newly added Semester Online program, which allows students to put together a degree with courses from a variety of partner institutions.

With the current buzz about MOOCs and other virtual education models, many have questioned what the future of the entire education industry will look like.

Tufts will always be a home for scholars, Rabie said. There is always going to be an institution people come to where [they] want to embrace a higher level of education.

Rabie explained that the cost to attend any school will continue to increase, making MOOCs more economically feasible.

At some point, the concern would be that the model breaks and it becomes unaffordable for a lot of people, he said.

However, Danahy maintained that a major component of a Tufts education cannot be bought nor found online and is instead experiential.

Your Tufts education ... [is] living here; its being on a sports team; its eating in the dining halls that make you develop as a person, Danahy said. Thats a separate education question than the question about how we effectively deliver the same information and experience for the in-class part.