College joins online learning platform edX

by Chris Leech | 1/23/14 8:17pm

The College announced Thursday that it will begin offering MOOCs, or massive open online courses, through the online learning platform edX. DartmouthX will launch its initial course this fall and plans to offer three additional MOOCs during the 2014-2015 academic year.

The online courses will be taught by Dartmouth faculty, who will receive support from academic computing and library staff to create and manage their online course content, according to a College press release. The College’s MOOCs will be open at no cost to any interested student with access to a computer and the Internet.

EdX is a nonprofit organization that supports MOOCs from over 30 institutions worldwide. MOOCs are taught in self-paced modules and include assessments and interactions with other students. Upon completion of some courses, students may apply for an identity-verified certificate of completion.

College President Phil Hanlon, a former member of the MOOC provider Coursera’s advisory board, expressed enthusiasm about the partnership.

“By joining edX, we enable our faculty to pave the way for the future, discovering new ways to teach that will take Dartmouth’s classrooms to the world,” Hanlon said in a statement.

Interim vice provost Lindsay Whaley said he was hopeful that the courses would help professors explore and experiment with digital learning.

Joining edX will also allow Dartmouth to access a store of edX data on how users learn, Whaley said. Interest in this data played a role in the College’s decision to partner with the organization, he said.

“[EdX] provides a way to understand how we might improve on-campus courses by using technology more effectively and innovatively,” Whaley said. “It’s a great chance for faculty members to experiment and share with colleagues what works and what might not work.”

MOOCs will not just be recorded lectures, but will instead involve short videos and presentations interspersed with assessments, director of digital learning initiatives Josh Kim said. The online courses will not necessarily run at the same time as their on-campus equivalents.

Professors will be able to find new ways to maximize the productivity of face-to-face class time with students, Kim said.

“Classroom time is really precious,” Kim said. “We want to be able to move whatever makes sense to the online learning environment, and out of the time where students are directly interacting with faculty.”

Kim previously served as the director of learning and technology for the College’s master’s in health care delivery science program. The program uses Canvas – which will soon replace Blackboard as the College’s learning management program – to allow students to spend nearly all of the program off-campus. While the program spans eighteen months, only six weeks of the course are spent on campus.

HarvardX spokesperson Michael Patrick Rutter said he was pleased with the first year of courses at HarvardX. The group’s mission is to teach faculty to use technology in new ways and advance education research.

“Institutions new to edX and MOOCs have to consider how they will set up a structure to best support their broader goals beyond just producing courses,” Rutter said in an email.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard recently released a report examining online courses offered by MITx and HarvardX, the institutions’ subsets of edX. There were over 800,000 registrations from nearly 600,000 users across the 17 courses provided in 2012. About 5 percent of registrants earned certificates of completion, and an additional 4 percent viewed over half of the course material, according to the study.

Whaley said the low completion rates for MOOCs may belie the benefits that invested students gain from taking courses, as much of the low completion rate can be explained by the fact that many enrolled students never explore the MOOC’s material. When adjusted for students who viewed the first class or took the first assessment, completion rates jump substantially, Whaley said.

After joining edX, Dartmouth must produce at least four MOOCs, Whaley said. After these initial courses are completed in 2015, Dartmouth will evaluate its programs and proceed accordingly, he said.

Maggie Finn ’16, president of Dartmouth’s Students for Education Reform, said she is optimistic about MOOCs and the future of online learning.

“MOOCs have the potential to revolutionize higher education and, most importantly, access to higher education,” Finn said. “As long as there are accountability systems and quality assurance, MOOCs could increase educational equality in the U.S. in a very nontraditional way.”

Quick takes: The Dartmouth asks faculty members their impressions of MOOCs.

Geography professor Richard Wright:

I’m okay with online content in courses at Dartmouth, I encourage students to seek online content and I think that some of the online content that’s available is fabulous, but I wouldn’t want to run an online course. I don’t get paid to teach online courses. I get paid to teach students and meet with them face-to-face, and that’s what I want to do.

Spanish and Portugese department chair Raul Bueno Chavez:

I think they are good in the sense they try to reach wider audiences, but I don’t know if that is what a Dartmouth student wants, as we promote a lot of direct faculty-student contact. Professors inside and outside of class in this institution are very open to conversations and asking questions, and although Internet classes may sometimes incentivize interaction, it is still not the same type of experience.

Geography postdoctoral fellow Paul Jackson:

I’m all for accessible education for everyone, but you have to give up so much of the educational experience in a MOOC.I think of them as the TED-ification of higher education. I know being against TED talks is like hating on puppies and sunshine, but I think MOOCs are very similar form of edutainment. These talks are data dumps with an uplifting narrative if you are lucky. That is not learning. Learning is hard and uncomfortable at times, a group experience.

Government lecturer Jason Sorens:

Overall, I think that MOOCs are a good innovation in that they can bring knowledge to far more people than the traditional classroom. I don’t think it will be as disruptive as some people have said. I think they’ll supplement what we do in the classrooms.

Sociology department chair Kathryn Lively:

I always assume, for example, that students do the reading, whether that’s true or not. And so I don’t lecture over the reading, I lecture other things and then the reading supplements that but I test over the readings. And so there is a certain expectation that I have with my students that I couldn’t necessarily hold 4,000 online students to.

Jose Burnes and Ashley Manning contributed reporting.