UCLA Conference Weighs MOOCs, Online Learning in California

Last week, University of California – Los Angeles hosted a day-long conference which looked at the potential impact of the massive online open courses (MOOCs) on the education system in California and elsewhere. The conference brought a number of third-party MOOC providers together with education officials from the state’s secondary education system to talk about whether a more aggressive expansion in online education offerings would hurt California schools or aid them.

The conference, “Rebooting Higher Education: Leveraging Innovations in Online Education to Improve Cost Effectiveness and Increase Quality,” was sponsored by the 20 Million Minds Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to lowering the cost of higher education. The event brought together vendors of online instruction like Coursera and Udacity, California policy makers, secondary education faculty and students.

It is no coincidence that a California university was chosen as the setting for the conference. Besides being the home of Silicon Valley – a hotbed of technological innovation – more than a few founders of the leading MOOC providers have come from colleges and universities in the state. Furthermore, late last year the state moved more aggressively to bring technology into the classroom via an open-source, network-based educational approach.

Last year, for instance, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed two bills, one creating a fund to create 50 open source digital textbooks and another establish an Open Source Library to host the books. The bills are deemed important because of the sheer size of the state’s university network. The legislation encompasses the University of California (UC) and the California Community College system, as well as California State University (CSU), the largest system of higher education in the country

Bob Samuels, who is the head of the University Council – American Federation of Teachers said that he opposed efforts like Brown’s because in drafting them, he didn’t seek out input from the sector of people who are most likely to be affected by them – the teachers. He further added that he didn’t buy the math that shows potential savings can be realized if MOOCs are to become more widely used in California schools.

You have to look at research, administration, staffing, athletics,” he said, adding: “I’m wondering why we’re pouring money into this.”

Similarly, Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association, which represents 23,000 educators in the California State University system, worried along with some other speakers that the rush to adopt MOOCs was happening without careful research into its impact — something academics are suited to do.

Yet these concerns seem to be contradicted by the experience of faculty who have put online learning into practice in their own classrooms. Daphne Koller, who taught at Stanford prior to leaving to start MOOC provider Coursera, said that when she first experimented with the “blended” learning model, the student engagement and outcomes actually improved.

These systems, she said, are ushering in a “brand new pedagogy” and provide important keys about effective teaching and educational design.

“We can now do the kind of rapid evolution in education” that is common at companies like Google, which “A/B test” their ad positions and user interface elements for effectiveness. “These websites evolve in a matter of days or weeks rather than years,” Koller said.

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