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BU officials skeptical of open online courses

As more and more courses expand their free and online course offerings, Belmont University officials are skeptical of the educational effects these open classes can have.

After months where a bevy of high-profile schools signing up to offer these massive open online courses Belmont associate provost Dr. Jimmy Davis called these specific online classes a “flash in the pan.”

“I’m not impressed by MOOC’s,” he said. “Many schools do [online education] as well as you can.”

While Davis supports some online courses, more and more schools are choosing to do the opposite with MOOC’s that are offered for free and open to anyone interested in signing up. Credit is typically not given for these classes, but three schools announced they would offer class credit for them.

Last week, Coursera and its counterpart EdX added a combined 35 new schools to their group of collaborating institutions around the world. Those colleges include Northwestern and Rice Universities and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Even with a growing amount of schools offering these courses, Davis said the content from these courses make it impossible to establish relationships or gain insight that lectures typically provide.

“It’s the equivalent of ordering a big textbook online and teaching it yourself,” he said. “Could you learn calculus through ‘Here’s a book and have a nice day?’ Of course not.”

Institutional Technology Training Specialist Aimee Cabrera She’s taking a MOOC from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and while she enjoys the course and its content, she doesn’t think the courses are ready to be offered for credit yet.

“I don’t think there’s enough structure in those courses settings,” Cabrera said. “There’s only so much you can do as an instructor when you have 2700 students.”

Dr. Douglas Schmidt, a Vanderbilt University professor who will teach an eight-week MOOC starting next month, places much more optimism in the open online courses.

As of last week, Schmidt said more than 27,000 people had signed up to take his online course called “Pattern-Oriented Software Architectures for Concurrent and Networked Software” starting March 5.

Schmidt said he saw a major opportunity to allow students around the world a chance to learn along with an opportunity to challenge himself to rethink his content for traditional and online courses.

“My motivation for this course was to make myself better as a teacher and leveraging this technology for the future,” he said.

While his course will be one of the MOOCs which will double the number of people who have signed up for a Vanderbilt class, he said his online course won’t match what can can teach during one of his in-person lecture courses.

“We’re not going to replace education,” he said. “We’re going to augment it.”

While Schmidt also compared the course to a book, his prognosis was much more encouraging than Davis’. The author of 10 books sees the course as something with the potential to connect with a wider range of users than his previous work.

“I look at the course I’ve produced as a multi-media, highly engaging book,” Schmidt said. “It’s a much more captivating book.”

While Davis is still skeptical of these MOOC’s and their effects, he said Belmont should not treat online education with a negative perspective in general.

“If there are improved and valid ways of learning better, we should try to attend to that,” Davis said. “Clearly, there are ways we can use online classes that benefit [our education].”

Now, the Belmont provost believes the most effective way to use online content is in a shared environment with in-person courses like many eight-week courses now in place on campus.

In departments the size of many at Belmont, Davis said hybrid courses provide the balance he thinks can be effective for students.

“The level of relationships are still maintained,” he said. “It’s just a different structure.”

Belmont’s current use of a redesigned Blackboard is the university’s primary use of online content, Cabrera said. Now, how professors use that mix the university offers is up to them.

“There are some who use Blackboard as an online repository and there are some who are taking the class experience online,” she said.

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