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UT testing the MOOC waters

Growing number of universities offer free online classes to anyone.

Michael Starbird, a University of Texas math professor, was in his element one day last week, teaching students to puzzle their way through the concept of infinity using an endless supply of make-believe golf balls and pingpong balls.

He’s done it a hundred times, but never quite like this, with a video camera rolling and a behind-the-scenes staff of editors, producers and students who will package this lesson and others into “Effective Thinking Through Mathematics,” his online course free to anyone in the world with a computer and an Internet connection.

Starbird, who has an easy manner and mostly gray hair, is eager to see how the course will be received when it’s released in the spring semester — and, more broadly, how such “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, evolve in the rapidly changing landscape of higher education.

“It’s the magic of thinking that a kid in Bangladesh can become able to participate in the world economy and society,” Starbird said. “That’s the lofty goal. This whole enterprise is experimental. It’s a little chaotic. I love it.”

In the past year or so, scores of universities have joined this ever-expanding experiment, offering MOOCs generally for free — and for no credit — typically through such online learning platforms as Coursera, Udacity and edX.

MOOCs — pronounced “mooks” — are typically eight to 15 weeks long and can be accessed whenever a student has time during that period, although segments are often rolled out week by week. Most MOOCs feature video of a faculty member lecturing, with charts, maps and other graphics for highlights. Online discussion forums allow students to converse with each other, faculty members and teaching assistants.

Quizzes, reading assignments and separate online research are often part of the package. In some cases, students can get a certificate for doing well, but it generally wouldn’t count toward a degree or workforce training.

Only a handful of schools in Texas offer MOOCs. UT-Austin rolled out four courses — on energy, drug development, globalization and ideas of the 20th century — this semester, drawing 125,000 students from around the world, and it will add five courses next year, including Jazz appreciation and Starbird’s class.

More than 80,000 people signed up last year for Rice University’s first MOOC, which was on computer programming. UT-Arlington, in a bit of a twist, offers a course on patient safety designed for registered nurses but open to anyone; students can get credit for it if they score high enough on an exam and enroll in the university’s College of Nursing.

The trend isn’t limited to the United States. Berlin-based introduced six courses last week, including “The Future of Storytelling” from the University of Applied Sciences in Potsdam, Germany.

Questions about future

Despite the buzz, it’s unclear whether MOOCs will be around in five years and how they might transform higher education. Critics worry that MOOCs might be used to replace faculty members, while proponents say they are more likely to function as multimedia textbooks, supplementing traditional classroom instruction.

Among the challenges facing this emerging genre: developing sustainable business models, polishing offerings that sometimes consist of little more than narrated slide shows, and figuring out how to retain students, the vast majority of whom fail to complete MOOCs.

“This revolution’s a year old. It’s a work in progress,” said Steven Mintz, executive director of the UT System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, which the Board of Regents seeded with $50 million in endowment proceeds to spawn MOOCs and other innovations at the system’s 15 academic and health campuses.

By a unanimous vote of the regents a year ago, the institute put $5 million into edX, a nonprofit established by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, each of which chipped in $30 million. EdX — pronounced “Ed X” — hosts UT-Austin’s MOOCs on its website,, along with 76 courses from Harvard, MIT, the University of California at Berkeley and other schools.

The UT System gave the Austin campus $1.5 million to help underwrite its nine MOOCs. UT-Austin President Bill Powers said he regards MOOCs as one element in an evolving suite of online and technology-enhanced educational tools. Such tools can supplement traditional classroom learning and, thanks to sophisticated software, help pinpoint where students are struggling.

“How much of it will be free for people around the world, whether it will evolve into credit for our students — it’s likely to be a combination of that — are things we’re still learning,” Powers said. “But this general game — we’re in for keeps.”

Infinity TV

Starbird is trying to infuse his MOOC with a face-to-face flavor. Instead of just lecturing to a camera, he had two students sit at a table with him for the lesson on infinity.

Among the problems he posed: How many pingpong balls are left in a barrel with an infinite supply of them if you remove one ball?

“Infinity minus one,” said Scott Akers, a graduate student in technology commercialization.

Starbird quickly disabused Akers of that notion by asking him questions to help him grasp the concept that infinity isn’t a number and that “infinity minus one” therefore makes no sense.

The setting for Starbird’s video was nothing fancy: an eighth-floor classroom, with panels in front of the door to block out extraneous light. A daunting amount of editing, fact-checking, caption-writing and other work will go into the finished product.

“It is a lot of work, especially for these early adopters or trailblazers,” said Harrison Keller, UT-Austin’s vice provost for higher education policy and research. Faculty members got stipends of up to $10,000 for their trouble.

One of the more polished courses, offered this semester, is Energy 101, taped in the studio of the university’s KUT radio station with high-end cameras and sound gear. Michael Webber, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, said he was striving for a TV-quality multimedia experience. His MOOC includes interactive graphics and widgets, such as a lever that students can manipulate on the computer to control water flow through a virtual dam, illustrating how hydroelectric output varies.

“In my first office hour (online) I had a question from every continent except Antarctica,” Webber said. “That blew me away, in a very exciting way, to see the reach.”

UT-Austin’s first round of MOOCs has revealed a few technical glitches.

Webber said designing a question about the unit for measuring oil was problematic because “barrel” or “barrels” would be an acceptable answer. Yet the software would allow only one of those words to be programmed as the correct response. In the drug course, students typically had two chances to answer a question correctly, even in the case of true-or-false statements.

University officials say they are working with edX to correct such glitches for future offerings.

How to fund MOOCs is a matter of considerable discussion.

A pilot project for UC-Berkeley’s statistics course offers an identity-verified certificate for students who pass, said edX President Anant Agarwal. In contrast with a free certificate earned under the honor code, the verified version carries a $25 fee. It’s thought that the verified version might be more attractive to some students and employers.

Another way to defray costs might be to offer free and premium versions of courses, the latter carrying a small fee and featuring more support from teaching assistants and faculty members, said the UT System’s Mintz. Students at the system’s campuses might be offered the opportunity to take an exam for credit after completing certain MOOCs, for which they would be charged a small fee, he said.

“We’re in the experimental moment,” Mintz said. “We’re trying to figure out in this exciting arena what works, what doesn’t work, how it can best benefit our own students.”

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