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The Wild West of MOOCs
Posted On April 15, 2013
Hardly a day goes by without a story appearing in a major new outlet about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). While most of the headlines—including this one—reference MOOCs, the real issues are quite broad in scope, covering everything from whether higher education as we know it is on the verge of combusting, to big, bold experiments using technology to deliver education in transformative ways on a global scale. While the exact discussions seem to change on a constant basis, some of the current hot topics include proposed legislation in California, the swirl of possibilities around business models for so-called xMOOCs, and increased demand for production and availability of open textbooks.


Much of the current hype around MOOCs is focused on xMOOCs—those MOOCs that are closely linked to and replicate traditional higher education courses, but offered at a much bigger scale, for free or at a low cost, and are open to students anywhere in the world. Coursera, Udacity, and edX are three of the major platforms that deliver xMOOCs from many well-known institutions including Harvard, MIT, Stanford University, and many other universities around the world. The marketplace continues to grow; other companies and platforms offering xMOOCs include Venture Lab, Open2Study, and Canvas.Net. To help potential students find xMOOCs, Class Central has developed a highly useful tool that allows users to search across an aggregated pool of course descriptions from many of these platforms.

Although xMOOCs are offered on a variety of subjects, not all of which are exact replicas of traditional courses, their potential to augment undergraduate education has piqued a great deal of interest. During the fall 2012 semester, San Jose State University (SJSU) conducted a MOOC-related experiment. One section of SJSU’s Introduction to Circuits Analysis course led by SJSU lecturer Khosrow Ghadiri was set up as a “flipped” classroom while other sections of the class were taught in the conventional way. The 87 students in this section of the course prepared for class by viewing video lectures and answering problem sets created at MIT and presented through MITx. The MITx materials were then supplemented by in-class discussions and hands-on active learning techniques. As explained in an SJSU press release,

During class, Ghadiri facilitated 15 minutes of questions and answers, and then devoted the remainder of the class to peer and team instruction and problem solving using materials developed by SJSU faculty members. Early indicators have been remarkably positive. Although the numbers of students were small and classes differed on many factors, the pass rate in the blended class was 91 percent, and the pass rates in the conventional classes were as low as 55 percent.

The SJSU experiment’s early success is leading to more pilot projects involving flipped and blended courses, and materials for the Introductions to Circuits Analysis course will be made available to as many as 11 other California State University campuses.

Course Credit for xMOOCs

Elsewhere in California, state legislators are looking at MOOCs as a way to offer introductory and remedial courses to higher numbers of students than they can currently serve. Recently, California State Senate Bill 520 was introduced by Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Calif.) that would speed up the process to figure out how to award credit by the state university system for students who successfully complete selected MOOCs. The proposed bill:

Would establish the California Student Access Pool, through which students could access online courses, and would require the online courses approved by the council under the bill to be placed in this pool. The bill would require that students taking online courses available in the pool and achieving a passing score on course examinations be awarded full academic credit for the comparable course at the University of California, the California State University, or the California Community Colleges.

If passed, this bill would force higher education institutions within California—and realistically, elsewhere within the U.S.—to accept MOOCs as a legitimate alternative to traditional forms of education. Furthermore, it will speed up the process for institutions to figure out how to count credits from MOOCs toward requirements. In February, Coursera made the first step toward this goal with its announcement that the American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendations Service (ACE CREDIT) has evaluated and recommended college credit for five courses offered through Coursera.

Meanwhile, Udacity announced its own partnership with San Jose State dubbed “San Jose State Plus.” For the spring 2013 term, San Jose State Plus offered three courses—Entry-Level Mathematics, College Algebra, and Elementary Statistics. This pilot program was developed in order to offer more opportunities for students to take courses such as these, which are graduation requirements and yet are often over-enrolled. The fee for each of these three classes is $150—far less than the enrollment fees for their in-person equivalents.

Burgeoning Business Models for MOOC Providers

Business models for offering, developing, and creating a sustainable ecosystem for xMOOCs has been another hotly debated topic. In February, The Chronicle of Higher Education obtained legal documents that outlined various edX funding models that involve a mix of ways to charge partner institutions. Udacity and Coursera courses are free for students to take but offer some optional add-on services such as receiving certification upon successful completion of courses. MOOC platform developers are also experimenting with charging private sector companies for exposure to high-performing students or matching students with prospective employers. Since the MOOC ecosystem is so new, no single model has yet to emerge and providers continue to experiment with different revenue streams.

Open Textbooks and OERs

One of the challenges of MOOCs is providing access to reading materials—books, articles, reports that all students are able to access without limitations based on local libraries or requiring students to pay for expensive textbooks. While open access (OA) articles and books solve some needs, several organizations are trying to address this issue with a different approach: by producing free textbooks and using Open Educational Resources (OERs) in more systematic ways.

OpenStax College, an initiative of Rice University and supported by many nonprofit organizations including The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has begun to publish its own brand of open, peer-reviewed textbooks. OpenStax College books are all openly licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY), which means that anyone is free to use, share, remix, and even make commercial use of the books. Most textbooks currently offered through OpenStax College are aimed at entry-level courses (“Introduction to Sociology,” “College Physics,” “Biology”).

The Saylor Foundation is taking a different approach to accomplish the same goal of making textbooks openly and freely available. Its Open Textbook Challenge is designed to re-license existing textbooks with a CC-BY license or encourage researchers to help develop openly licensed textbooks in specific fields. To entice authors, it is offering $20,000 for accepted textbooks aligned with eligible Saylor Foundation courses in order to build up a library of reading materials for its self-paced courses.

Lumen Learning, co-founded by David Wiley, a leader in the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement, launched the “Textbook Zero” project—an initiative designed to support “institutions that want to move an entire degree program off of expensive, traditional textbooks and on to freely available OER.” Lumen Learning is currently working with Tidewater Community College to launch a pilot project in fall 2013.

As noted in the Tidewater Community College announcement about its “Textbook-Free” degree program:

For students who pursue the new ‘textbook-free’ degree, the total cost for required textbooks will be zero. Instead, the program will use high quality open textbooks and other open educational resources, known as OER, which are freely accessible, openly licensed materials useful for teaching, learning, assessment, and research. It is estimated that a TCC student who completes the degree through the textbook-free initiative might save one-third on the cost of college.

Furthermore, this pilot project will make Tidewater Community College “the first accredited institution in the United States to offer a degree in which students pay nothing for required textbooks.”

Stay Tuned for More

The space around MOOCs and Open Education continues to change at a dizzying pace. Librarians and information professionals cannot afford to wait until the dust settles to try to make sense of the issues. In the March/April issue of D-Lib Magazine, Forrest Wright from Thomson Reuters published the article, “What do Librarians Need to Know About MOOCs?” For ongoing updates, Laura Czerniewicz, associate professor and director of the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Educational Technology, has been maintaining a list of references to articles about MOOCs in Delicious. If you haven’t already experienced a MOOC, a hands-on way to see what the fuss is about is by taking a class. With a $0 entrance fee and courses available on nearly any imaginable topic, it’s worth taking the time to learn something new and gaining first-hand experience of what it is like to participate in a course with several thousand other participants. 

Abby Clobridge is the founder of and principal consultant at FireOak Strategies (formerly Clobridge Consulting), a boutique firm specializing in knowledge management, information management, and open knowledge (open access, open data, open education). Abby has worked with a wide range of organizations throughout the world, including various United Nations agencies; private sector companies; colleges and research universities; nonprofit, intergovernmental, and multi-stakeholder organizations; and the news media. She can be found on Twitter (@aclobridge).

Email Abby Clobridge

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