Open online classes transform Georgia colleges

Cameras filmed Emory University professor Steve Everett as he recorded a lesson for a digital sound design class.

He teaches a popular music class on campus, but it can only accommodate 15 students. Yet, more than 20,000 people are expected to take his class in January when it is offered as a massive open online course, or MOOC.

These online courses are revolutionizing higher education as they give students free access worldwide to content and faculty offered by elite colleges. About 2 million students have signed up for the classes this year, and two Georgia colleges — Emory and Georgia Tech — are among those participating. Georgia Tech started this fall, and Emory begins in January.

Colleges are on the cusp of a major transformation as they test what they can provide through advanced technology and how they can operate more efficiently. They are discussing how to provide a richer learning experience online and in traditional classrooms.

“The model of higher education is changing,” said Lynn Zimmerman, Emory’s senior vice provost. “We are at the forefront of the experiment, and I don’t think anyone can predict where it will go.”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded millions in grants to support and expand this movement. National groups are working to assess quality and award credit for these classes so they would count just as they do when students transfer from one school to another.

The foundation tapped Georgia Tech and other schools to design quality remedial and introductory-level courses. These classes stump many students, and this work unites MOOCs with the national push to help more adults acquire a college education.

Some question whether the free MOOCs can defray the cost of a college education. Others wonder whether these classes, taught by the country’s most respected colleges, will replace those offered at less prestigious schools.

“What does it mean to be a quality university in this age of explosive innovation?” asked Richard DeMillo, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Center Universities. “Colleges can’t convince themselves that things will be the same in five years.”

Colleges offering massive online courses say this is not that different from public lectures offered on campus, except this is happening on a larger scale. While colleges are giving content for free, leaders stress this is not the same as giving away a free degree.

“We are providing an opportunity for people to learn, and that should be one of our fundamental values,” Tech Provost Rafael Bras said. “But this won’t be free forever.”

There are other motivations, such as expanding one’s global reach.

“Georgia Tech is and should always be a leader in education,” Bras said. “I’m not going to wait for others to tell us what to do or for others to figure out what the future of higher education is going to look like.”

Tech and Emory are part of Coursera, a for-profit company that offers more than 200 courses from more than 30 universities. Two other large players are Udacity, also a private company, and edX, a nonprofit started by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Other partnerships have sprung up in recent months. Emory and nine other colleges formed Semester Online, which charges students to take online courses offered by the school and receive credit.

“We are all trying to see what works and what doesn’t,” Zimmerman said.

Some educators and critics wonder whether colleges are moving too fast. They question the quality of these online courses and fear the focus on them will weaken traditional classroom courses. Some worry financially struggling states may force public colleges to eliminate some classes and faculty and instead rely on free online offerings.

The University System of Maryland is working with a research group to study how these open online courses could be used at different campuses. Part of the work will look at whether colleges can maintain and improve quality while reducing costs.

Others have voiced concerns about cheating, but those who teach these courses say this can be easily solved. Students could go to a location for a proctored exam. Or, when students take tests on their computers they must show ID and keep the system’s video camera running.

A larger concern is how this will play out in the marketplace. Moody’s Investors Service predicted that as more elite colleges work together, it could harm smaller schools and for-profit colleges “that may be left out.”

MOOCs differ from the free video lectures already online. Each lesson lasts five to 12 minutes because studies show that is the optimal time for people to watch videos, said Fatimah Wirth, an instructional designer at Tech who is also teaching an open online course.

She won’t be able to provide online students with one-on-one help, but she will poll them on what questions they have and respond to their top 10 through videos posted online.

Students can also participate in online discussions and learn in forums with other students.

James Park, an investment adviser in California, was among the more than 40,000 students who took a computational investing MOOC taught by Georgia Tech.

While the class started a bit slow, Park said the assignments became tougher and he learned practical information and skills.

“More hands-on help would have been appreciated,” he said, “but I know that the professor’s first priority must be with actual Georgia Tech students.”

Professors plan to apply online lessons in traditional classes. Everett may tell students in his traditional class to take the video lessons online. That will give him more time in class for creative and technical hands-on activities, he said.

Experimentation with MOOCs will continue and educators have an obligation to learn from it, Bras said.

He warned that the current system was not a fad, adding colleges must respond to the demands of tech-savvy students.

“This is the most exciting time in education with the most opportunity,” Bras said. “But it poses the most challenges because we don’t have all the answers yet.”