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Tyson Ni: UCLA should consider experimenting with massive open online courses

By Tyson Ni

May 2, 2014 12:00 a.m.

UCLA has been toeing the waters of online education. But now is the time to go ankle-deep.

Within the University of California system, UC Berkeley, UC Irvine and UC San Diego already collaborate with independent online education providers to deliver a diverse selection of courses to anyone with an Internet connection.

UCLA already hosts similar courses through UCLA Extension, offering both stand-alone courses and certificate programs for professionals. UCLA should strengthen and expand these programs by experimenting with what seems to be the cutting edge of online education: massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

MOOCs are classes that offer video lectures, quizzes and discussion forums – to an average of around 40,000 students each class. Other UCs have experimented with these not-for-credit courses to study innovative teaching approaches and increase the school’s outreach.

Far from distracting from the university’s responsibility to enrolled students, creating MOOCs taught by UCLA faculty would enable the school to test online strategies that can be applied to courses offered to UCLA students for credit.

The benefit to enrolled students extends to traditional classrooms as well as UCLA’s for-credit online program. For instance, course material and assignments for traditional classes can be pre-tested in MOOCs, giving professors a chance to fine-tune their teaching methods. By offering the same course with slightly different approaches to different students online, instructors can gain valuable information on which teaching methods lead to superior student outcomes.

Furthermore, the technological expertise UCLA would develop by offering MOOCs can be easily transferred to improving the UC Online platform. Indeed, MOOCs are often hosted through universities in partnership with independent organizations that bring a good deal of know-how to the table.

UC Berkeley, for example, partnered with edX, a nonprofit MOOC site, to conduct large-scale pedagogical research.

At UCLA and elsewhere, however, MOOCs have seen some pushback from faculty.

Susanne Lohmann, a professor of political science and public policy who teaches an online for-credit class through UC Online, said she thinks that instead of showcasing the benefits of a well-developed online course, MOOCs fail to engage students in course material.

She added that MOOCs are not much better than telling a student to read a textbook.

However, this generalization is not entirely accurate. MOOCs typically involve interdisciplinary teaching staff who tailor their lectures to the platform with short videos and assignments that require collaboration and engagement.

Others are put off by the time and effort needed to develop an online course.

This view is understandable but misses some crucial mitigating factors. MOOCs typically feature multiple instructors, each assigned to teach one portion of the course. A collaborative approach reduces the workload of a single instructor.

In addition, partnering with independent MOOC providers reduces the workload on university staff and instructors by making sure they aren’t building courses from scratch.

Finally, although establishing a new online platform requires a financial investment, funds are available from foundations and corporate donors interested in education technology.

UCSD, for example, received a grant from Google to offer a MOOC to the public, while UC Berkeley’s Resource Center for Online Education works to actively identify funding opportunities for its online initiatives.

Neither faculty concerns nor funding challenges are sufficient reason to bar UCLA from experimenting with new education initiatives. Rather, UCLA should explore the opportunity to shape the future of online learning.

Send general comments to [email protected] or tweet us @DBOpinion.

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