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What’s the proper role of MOOCs in higher ed?

Armando Fox, professor of computer science, faculty director of MOOCLab | April 24, 2013

Given the inordinate media attention and recent flurry of legislative activity around MOOCs (massive open online courses), I wanted to clarify the position of Berkeley’s Resource Center for Online Education (BRCOE) on the role of this new technology in our overall instructional system.

By way of background, long before MOOCs happened, Berkeley was already offering successful online courses, starting in 1992 with an online precalculus course for credit.  In 2011-2012, Berkeley enrolled more than 2,000 students in online courses for academic credit, more than 7,500  students in online courses for professional credit, and more than 75,000 students in free noncredit MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).  Many of the professional courses are offered by UC Berkeley Extension, whereas the online for-credit courses are offered through Extension and Summer Session in collaboration with campus faculty.

The for-credit courses and degree programs undergo extremely stringent internal and external reviews to ensure that their rigor and effectiveness are comparable to those of their traditional counterparts, and that Berkeley’s high standards of fostering critical thinking are properly brought into this domain.

MOOCs, on the other hand, are relatively new.  The experience of Berkeley faculty who have taught them is  that MOOCs work well as a supplement to traditional courses, not a replacement for them.  Courses at Berkeley and other world-class universities have shown that a blend of online and classroom instruction can increase professor and TA leverage and expand course enrollments while maintaining or increasing student satisfaction and learning outcomes.

As a research university with a nationally-recognized Graduate School of Education and a strongly interdisciplinary School of Information, we are enthusiastic to conduct the research to better understand the opportunities and limitations of technology-enhanced learning — not only to innovate in this area, but to inform our practical efforts.

Indeed, BRCOE will soon announce a major effort to support new research into technology-enhanced education, including new research using MOOCs as a vehicle that can yield more abundant and detailed data than has ever been available to pedagogy researchers.

But in the absence of systematic research, BRCOE believes it would be a disservice to Berkeley students to consider using a two-year-old technology as a replacement for traditional instruction, which seems to be the thrust of recent media coverage and some current legislative activity.  Berkeley will become a leader in online education not by charging prematurely into overzealous use of a new technology, but by doing the research to uncover its potential and position us to do the right thing by our students in the coming years—not just internally but in non-UC settings such as community colleges, high schools, and K-8 that ultimately “feed our pipeline.”

We recognize the disconnect between BRCOE’s point of view on this matter and the sentiment of some legislators and spokespersons for the private sector.  To that end, both we at Berkeley and our colleagues on other UC campuses are working hard to proactively inform the media, the private sector, and the public servants in Sacramento and elsewhere about both the opportunities and the pitfalls of online education. Our intention is to persuade them that “proceed optimistically but with care” is the right thing to do by our students, who are entrusting us with four or more years of education and career development when they arrive on campus.

As with any new technology, effective use of online learning can improve both the quality and quantity of what we do, but misapplication of the technology can just as surely lead to teaching the largest number of people in the shallowest possible way, which is in nobody’s interest.  Using online learning to improve what we are good at, while doing the research to illuminate the opportunities we haven’t yet taken advantage of, are key to sustaining the reputation of quality that has taken nearly a century and a half to build.