Online Classes: Are They Worth It?

Ohio State University committed $13.8 million in December of 2012 toward efforts to advance methods of delivering digital content to students who are eager to learn. This initiative included the creation of the Office of Distance Education and eLearning (ODEE), focusing not only on implementing more web content into university courses, but also offering more courses conducted entirely online.

One area of focus is Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. Though the concept is still relatively young, it is growing rapidly. Several online platforms host MOOCs taught by professors from universities all over the country. One platform, Coursera, has enrolled 3.1 million students from 196 countries since launching in 2012.

“Technology has caught up in a way that we can very robustly and rigorously deliver content to the masses in a way we had not been able to before,” said Michael Hofherr, associate vice president at ODEE.

Jim Fowler, a post-doctoral in mathematics, launched a calculus MOOC in January, called MOOCulus. Enrollment in the course is more than 35,000 students, and its videos, averaging about six minutes long, have accumulated almost one million views.

The course is similar to a traditional classroom. There is a suggested textbook, homework assignments, exams and open dialogue through a forum or online video office hours through Google+ Hangout.

Fowler said the forum is remarkably active, and that his interaction with the students is extensive.

“They’re always talking to each other, and I can get in the middle of those conversations,” he said. “As an instructor, I definitely feel more engaged with my (MOOCulus) students than I do in my traditional courses.”

Currently, MOOCulus offers two certificates for participants; one for completing the course, and one for completing the course with distinction.

However, MOOCs and have some perceived disadvantages. One of which is that since classes are free and offer no credit, participation commonly drops off.

“We have some courses that start with 20,000 people, and at the end there’s only a couple thousand left,” Hofherr said.”There’s no impetus to stay.”

Fowler said that he foresees universities eventually adopting a system for issuing college credit to those that complete MOOCs, though he is unsure exactly how it would be done.

Not all professors share the notion that MOOCs offer the same quality education as face-to-face interaction.

The Chronicle surveyed 103 MOOC professors and asked if they thought students who succeed in a MOOC deserve formal credit from the professor’s institution in February. Seventy-two percent answered “No.”

According to Fowler, the advantages offered by MOOCs extend beyond university credit. He offered examples such as job offers from recruiters or an extra advantage when applying to graduate programs.

Further, Fowler sees one of the greatest benefits arising from using the data that is gathered through student participation in improving teaching methods. In only 10 weeks, the system has accumulated a total of 2 million problems answered correctly, or the equivalent of one person-working non-stop for 10 years.

He said that the system he developed for MOOCulus offers detailed insight on how students ascertain concepts, common mistakes made and correlation between different kinds of problems.

“My hope is that information like this will help us to make tests more fair in the future because we actually know how likely the students are to answer correctly,” he said.

Open participation in online higher education is not limited to MOOCs alone. ODEE has teamed up with Apple’s tablet-based iTunes U to create the Digital First initiative, offering more options for students to consume course content. The initiative has gotten OSU national recognition, and helped it receive the New Media Consortium’s Center of Excellence award.

A group of 20 OSU faculty and staff members ventured to the Apple headquarters in California to undergo an iTunes U bootcamp, where they were instructed on how to build and maintain their own courses in December 2012.

Among them was journalism professor Nicole Kraft, who built a Media Law and Ethics course. The course features video recreations of court events as well as ethical dialogues relating to the media.

“The course continues to be kind of a living environment in education,” Kraft said, explaining that a tremendous amount of interaction takes place through social media and email.

While Kraft said she does not think digital courses should ever totally replace the personal interaction that takes place in a standard classroom, she explained they do offer many advantages.

“We can use technology to expand knowledge beyond just what we cover in the classroom, or just from a textbook that may be outdated from the second it’s published,” Kraft said. “Now they can have the information at their fingertips as it changes.”

Many students see a great deal of value in online education.

“I think it would be a great aid, especially if its supplemental to whatever education you’re already enrolled in,” said Jess Shuman, a fifth-year in philosophy. “You certainly could learn a lot from them.”

Evan Payne, a fifth-year in psychology, said that he has plenty of experience with online classes at OSU and Columbus State.

“They’re more reliant on what you put into it,” he said. “It’s about the student more than the instructor. They know they need to be accessible through the Internet at almost all times. I’m always able to get a hold of them through email, the class blog or Skype office hours.”


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