Professors from seven Maryland universities over the past 18 months explored the effectiveness of online courseware from Coursera and Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative.

By Jenny Hottle, Daily Record Business Writer
Monday, July 28, 2014
Originally published on thedailyrecord.com

For the past 20 years, Johnny Turtle has taught an ancient literature introductory course at various colleges and universities. His project-based course at University of Baltimore encouraged students to investigate topics through field research and readings and to report back to the class with their findings.

Students rated the course highly for its cultural enrichment, Turtle said, but some struggled to afford the high costs of texts along with tuition bills. So Turtle turned to a University System of Maryland and Ithaka S+R experiment and incorporated a massive open online course — commonly called MOOC — into his traditional curriculum.

Turtle and professors from seven Maryland universities over the past 18 months explored the effectiveness of online courseware from Coursera and Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative. Generally, students in these online and hybrid sections performed well, and instructors praised course outcomes.

But a report released this month by Ithaka found something else: Today’s students, famously known for their affinity for technology, actually prefer traditional in-person class sections to hybrid sections. Students surveyed said they found in-class instruction and discussions were more valuable than online material.

Echoing the students’ viewpoints, analysts of the study agreed that higher education officials shouldn’t let their enthusiasm for MOOC programs overshadow the value of face time with instructors.

Rebecca Griffiths, the study’s lead author, said preference for traditional sections could come from discomfort with using new learning platforms.

“A hybrid class requires a certain amount of self-directed learning,” Griffiths said. “We also find that students really like having a personal relationship with their instructors. I don’t think anything’s going to change that.”

But the cost of learning is rising, putting pressure on higher education officials to find ways to maximize faculty-student interaction with limited resources. The University System of Maryland has looked to these interactive, online courses as a solution, and a $1.4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation afforded Ithaka and the university system a chance to see how instructors could modify existing online materials and use them in the classroom.

“We need to take a really hard look at the capabilities that technologies have and to think about ways in which we can deliver content using the best technology available to fit the situation,” said M.J. Bishop, director of the university system’s Center for Innovation and Excellence in Learning and Teaching.

Several instructors reported a few issues with the integration of new platforms with existing learning management systems, and intellectual property rights remain a gray area. But 15 of 16 instructors reported they definitely would take content from the experiment into account when designing or modifying future courses.

Turtle’s students used video lectures from a MOOC as a source for their investigative projects — a tool he plans to use again.

“It gave students an opportunity to pair the traditional knowledge through books with the contemporary approach through the digital vein,” Turtle said. “It’s really a wonderful curriculum because we’re able to journey into the past in multiple ways.”

For some students, such as Nandin Dave, hybrid courses turned out to be a better alternative than a strictly online course. The University of Maryland Baltimore County junior said he had to take required psychology and statistics classes, and he opted for the hybrid sections.

“I thought I’d try something new and check out an online course,” Dave said. “I got class time too, which helps. And I learned a lot when I went to class.”

The concept of a MOOC was foreign to University of Maryland Eastern Shore associate professor Joseph Pitula when the university system asked him to use online material in his genetics class.

Pitula had been involved with previous course redesigns, so he agreed to the project without hesitation.

“I think professors are beginning to realize that for us to simply recite material and students to regurgitate it on a test might not be the best way to teach someone the subject,” Pitula said. “We need to incorporate more opportunities to engage students.”

Students are already used to using technology at school, so it’s natural to make more resources available online, said Shoshana Brassfield, a Frostburg University professor who used a MOOC for her online summer course. But educators should look at technology as a supplement to teaching, she said, not a substitute.

“What’s starting to change is the idea that we might make whole lectures available online and use that face-to-face time more productively and interactively,” Brassfield said. “I think that has a lot of potential.”

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