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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

MOOCs extend Carolina’s reach across the globe


Evan Feldman, assistant professor of music, conducts the UNC Wind Ensemble.

This fall and spring, an estimated 100,000 students will take five courses offered by six of the best faculty members at Carolina.

None will pay tuition.

None will have to set foot on campus, which is key, since most do not live within commuting distance. In fact, more than half of them live outside the country.

None will receive a grade or earn credits toward a degree.

But all of the students will get a chance to learn using an educational delivery system that, until a few years ago, would have been unimaginable.

These 100,000 students are among the millions of students around the world now taking courses from some of the top universities in the world through massive open online courses, otherwise known as MOOCs, which Oxford Dictionaries recently recognized as an official word.

Oxford defines a MOOC as “a course of study made available over the Internet without charge to a very large number of people.”

Extending Carolina’s reach

University leaders, meanwhile, are intent on finding out how MOOCs might redefine higher education, if only by extending its reach throughout the world.

“Accessibility has been a part of Carolina’s charter since it was founded as the country’s first public university,” said Vice Provost for Academic Initiatives Carol Tresolini. “We do not see MOOCs as changing our mission, but expanding our ability to reach and serve a broader array of people than ever before.”

And there is no campus group better suited to do that than the William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education, which partnered with University faculty, information technology professionals, librarians and experts in instructional design to develop multiple courses across different disciplines and present them through Coursera, an online education company.

Tresolini led the MOOCs task force that in February selected the following courses from the proposals that faculty members submitted for consideration. The courses and their instructors are:

moocs2_feldman_450“What we were looking for were people who were interested in exploring different approaches to teaching and learning,” Tresolini said. “At the same time, each course had to be grounded in good, sound, evidence-based educational practices.

“These five MOOCs will be exposing thousands of people to UNC-Chapel Hill, and the instructors involved with each course did a wonderful job designing them to ensure a high level of excellence.”

While it is important to distinguish between credit and non-credit courses, the principles of instructional design are basically the same, said Friday Center Director Rob Bruce.

“You want to make sure there is a syllabus that expresses clear objectives, expectations and an overall course summary,” Bruce said. “You want to use a variety of media (video, graphics, text) to appeal to different learning styles. And you want it to be an engaging, interactive experience.

“You want learning objectives that can be measured. And you want to provide opportunities for feedback.”

The course development process is led by a working group that draws members from key University departments including the Friday Center, the Center for Faculty Excellence, Information Technology Services, the University Libraries, the School of Education and the Gillings School of Global Public Health.

“This has been just an amazing experience to work with so many people to make this happen,” Bruce said. “This team has planned and executed a significant amount of work, all the while continuing with their regular workloads.

“Kim Eke, director of ITS Teaching and Learning, has been particularly instrumental in this process. We would never have gotten this initiative off the ground without her and the entire working group team.”

Tresolini added: “It’s been exhilarating really. Eight months ago we felt that we were at the start of a roller coaster ride none of us had been on before. We were all holding hands waiting for it to start.”

Behind the numbers

The ride was perhaps even more exhilarating than they expected, Bruce said.

On Sept. 2, the day Pomerantz’s Metadata course went live, it received some 17,000 views from streaming video and 22,000 downloads, Bruce said.

To put those numbers in context, the Friday Center offers non-credit “face-to-face” courses to about 3,000 students a year and for-credit courses to another 8,000 students each year.

The numbers were staggering, but what was even more fascinating to Bruce was the fact that about 65 percent of the students who enrolled live outside the country. In Feldman’s music course, that percentage increases to 75 percent.

Bruce said each course has a pre-course survey that gathers information on student demographics, reasons for taking the course and expected levels of participation. Instructors also set up quizzes people can take to evaluate their readiness for taking the course.

There is no cost to enroll, but students who opt to enroll in Coursera’s Signature Track and complete the coursework pay $49 for a verified certificate of completion. That revenue is expected to be modest, but will be used to recoup some of the costs for developing the courses.

Expanding ‘The citizen’s classroom’

Tresolini said Carolina cannot afford to sit on the sidelines with MOOCs. Not if it wants to remain a leading public university with an eye for innovation that has an impact on the world.

“We feel compelled to continue to be a part of this grand experiment,” she said.

What is most exciting about MOOCs is the economy of scale and the incredible international outreach, Bruce said.

“I was reading the Environmental Law discussion board the other day and students were creating their own United Kingdom study group,” he said. “One of the students wrote that they had just moved from England to Ghana and would like to be part of the UK group. Geography simply does not matter when it comes to student interaction and learning communities.”

The reach of MOOCs is yet another way for the Friday Center and the University to make Carolina’s incredible faculty and research available to the public, he added. “Bill Friday called our center the citizen’s classroom. It still is, but that classroom just got a whole lot bigger.”