At UTexas, Cornell, Student Critics Question Need For MOOCs

Odds dictate that an announcement of a partnership between Cornell University and the University of Texas at Austin with the online course provider edX would have been met with fanfare, but it wasn’t. Instead, students at the universities are wondering why.

The Daily Texan wrote in an editorial that the results of Massive Online Open Courses had a completion rate ranging from 1 to 13 percent. It also said that the university has not laid out any long term goals for MOOCs and that “the numbers don’t bode particularly well for the course’s overall success. It went on to say that, there is confusion as to why the universities even continue funding an “unused educational experiment”.

Students at Cornell recently raised similar concerns stating that “administration has not yet outlined how MOOCs will benefit Cornell students”. Backlash on MOOCs has become common, but there is less criticism from students.

Based on the questions raised, the editorials indicate students may see MOOCs as their alma mater investing millions of dollars in a project aimed at everyone but paying students — and also that university officials need to improve how they communicate the worth of their experiments.

Administrators and faculty at UT-Austin acknowledged concerns regarding completion rates and income, but stress that the results are not yet complete.

Michael Starbird, professor of Mathematics, said that when it comes to experiments no one should expect perfection at first. “The big-picture question is: Should the university be investing in educational experiments — and the answer is emphatically yes.”

According to Carl Straumsheim at Inside Higher Ed, the university has launched four MOOCs so far, and plans to add five more in the spring. All are hosted by edX. Harrison Keller, UT-Austin’s vice provost of higher education policy and research said the nine MOOCs costing $1.5 million have been funded by $10 million in investment received by the University of Texas System partnering with the MOOC providers consortium.

The costs of those classes are minimal compared to the systems operating budget, which totals $14.6 billion this year. Keller says that UT-Austin alone costs $2.25 billion.

The $10 million also pales in comparison to other investments made campus wide. The system this fiscal year allocated $55.5 million to UT-Austin for recruitment and retention efforts, a spokeswoman said, and Keller estimated that simply maintaining the institution’s IT infrastructure costs a minimum of $40 million a year.

According to Keller, future plans for MOOCs include the option for students to earn college credits toward a degree, and a “statistics course that can be taken as a free MOOCs through edX, a blended course on campus, and a dual credit course through the OnRamps initiative for the state’s high school students”.

John Hoberman, professor of Germanic languages, says that freshmen students in the fall may have the same option for his courses.  “There are a variety of pedagogical arrangements that could integrate this MOOC into a credit granting course that really would serve University of Texas students.” He also asked critics to consider the potential benefits for students around the world.

 “It is a gift to the world — that’s my favorite slogan. I don’t see why such gifts to the world should not be produced by the great universities of wealthy societies. To the University of Texas students, I’m saying, you know what, there is another deserving audience out there that — for the most part — does not have your resources.”