Thursday, May 09, 2013

Amherst and San Jose State University -- two approaches to MOOCs

There has been recent news and controversy surrounding the relationship of San Jose State University and MOOC providers Udacity and edX. I was at a conference the week before last and met Catheryn Cheal, Associate Vice President and Senior Academic Technology Officer at SJSU, who is administering the MOOC experiments at San Jose State.

She confirmed a positive result -- students taking a circuits and electronics class did better in a section that used edX material as a supplementary "text" than those in other sections. Based on that experience, they plan to offer more blended classes and will establish a Center for Excellence in Adaptive and Blended Learning.

That sounds reasonable to me. A professor had students subscribe to a MOOC in the same way as he or she would ask them to buy a book or read some articles. The results were encouraging, so the university established a center for research and training on that as a pedagogical technique.

But, SJSU has taken a second step that is less conventional. Ms. Cheal confirmed that they are now offering some classes -- elementary statistics for example -- that will substitute for on-campus classes. Students will get credit at San Jose State and the credits will be "transferable to most colleges and universities nationwide." (In a FAQ, they admonish the student to check with their school).

I am not anti-MOOC. I was at the conference I mentioned above to give a talk on the innovation in pedagogy, technology and school and social systems that I expect to come from MOOCs and modular courseware, but SJSU seems to be moving very fast.

The elementary statistics course mentioned above will be a general education course. On my campus, a faculty committee has to approve general education courses. Based on the course description, it seems to be a typical introduction to descriptive statistics and simple inference, but many majors offer such courses -- education, nursing, business, psychology, etc. Again, department and school curriculum committees traditionally specify curriculum.

I understand the desire to eliminate "bottlenecks" in student progress through the university and, as I mentioned, I expect far reaching innovation from MOOCs and modular courseware, but I am curious to know the decision to accept these particular courses for credit was made. (That is not to say it may not have been the correct decision).

We can contrast San Jose State with Amherst, which recently decided not to offer courses through edX, but to experiment on their own. That strikes me as a prudent middle ground. The university will learn and will become self-sufficient. For example, they might install an open source MOOC platform from Google or from Stanford/edX and let their faculty experiment by developing full courses or modules to supplement their current courses or they might decide to wait until hosted versions of those platforms become available. Amherst will learn and remain in control of its destiny.

Organizations often outsource peripheral functions in order to focus on their core mission. Outsourcing fast food service to Taco Bell might make sense, but teaching is one of the core missions of a university, and we should not rush to outsource it -- to a MOOC provider, a textbook publisher or anyone else.

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Update 5/12/2013

Google tells me the following universities are offering MOOCs using their open source platform, Course Builder: North Carolina State, Indiana, Cornell University, Universitat Politècnica de València, and the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

They also say we can expect Course Builder to become increasingly easy for non-technical faculty to use, but will not comment on the possibility of offering it as a hosted service -- we will have to wait and see about Google MOOCs.

Update 5/13/2013

Robert McGuire provides more details on the blended circuits class mentioned above in this post.

Update 5/14/2013

San Jose State is not the first university to give credit for taking a MOOC. Six European universities gave credit to students who took Stanford's AI course online last year. Students had to go to the University of Freiburg in Germany to take a proctored final exam. San Jose State exams will be proctored using a web cam and screen capture by ProctorU.

Do you know of other cases in which college or university credit was awarded for successful completion of a MOOC?