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MOOCs Are Moving Forward

MOOCs add to a tradition of what is known as distance learning

MOOCs add to a tradition of what is known as distance learning

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From VOA Learning English, this is EXPLORATIONS in Special English. I’m Bob Doughty.

And I’m Faith Lapidus. Today we tell about the growing popularity of Massive Open Online Courses in higher education.

The movement toward education by computer is developing fast. Massive Open Online Courses, called MOOCs, are changing how people learn in many places. For years, people could receive study materials from colleges or universities and take part in online classes. But such classes were not designed for many thousands of students at one time, as MOOCs are.

Course materials provided by MOOCs can serve both those studying far away from school and those attending classes in person. Anyone with a computer and an online connection can sign up for a MOOC. Students do not have to pass entrance exams. They also do not need to have studied the subject before.

One professor praised MOOCs because they let people who could not attend a traditional college continue their education. He asked, “Who knows where the next Albert Einstein will come from?”

The spread of Internet learning for huge numbers of people is leading some colleges to join the movement. Major universities like Stanford in California and Harvard in Massachusetts have invested millions of dollars to help launch MOOCs. Those schools and others may have heard an attention-getting prediction. The man who created the MOOC service Udacity says that in fifty years, only ten traditional universities will remain in the world.

That prediction came from Sebastian Thrun, a computer scientist probably best known for his part in making Google’s driverless car. He is still a research professor at Stanford University. But he left his teaching position at Stanford to help start Udacity, a provider of MOOCs.

Universities that fail to join the movement for MOOCs may be worried about their chances of survival. Colleges also hope to gain more students and cut operational costs in return for their investments.

The web site Class Central says twenty-three new courses were added to the list of available MOOCs by October first. These study programs are from about four weeks to twenty-four weeks long. They usually have videos, homework, weekly tests, a final examination and a rating in the class.

A growing number of organizations offer the courses. They include the California Institute of Technology, also known as Caltech. Other providers include edX, a partnership of universities led by Harvard, and a not-for-profit company called Coursera.

Two Stanford University computer scientists, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, launched Coursera a year ago after years of research. Today, Coursera and other MOOC providers offer hundreds of courses.

Daphne Koller says that before long, people may wonder why college students ever filled a room to hear a lecture. Traditionally, colleges and universities required teachers to give lectures to their classes for an hour or more. The teacher provided information, and the students took notes.

This method did not seem satisfactory to Professor Koller and others at Stanford. She and her students organized a program that tested possible changes. The changes they accepted became part of Coursera. One such reform was the auto graded assessment, in which students test themselves on their progress.

Andrew Ng was working separately from Professor Koller at the time. He was developing technology for improving educational methods while she worked on course content or information. Her main goal was to increase the time that students spent with their professor.

The two teachers came to understand that they had the makings of something new. In fall of two thousand eleven, Stanford offered courses open to students who do not attend the university.

Mr. Ng remembers launching the courses, and finding that he and Daphne Koller had created something very popular.

“We’d been working on technology for several years, and this had culminated last year with Stanford University offering three free online courses, each of which had an enrollment of something like one hundred thousand students and up. And based on that, we

Today, that “something” has more than one million students. Will many of these students do all of their college work by computer? If so, they would enter the professional world with course completion documents instead of a degree. For years, a degree has been the sign to employers that students have completed the requirements for a college education.

But today, employers may be more than willing to offer work to a student with an excellent record in MOOC courses without a college degree. That is especially true at technology companies.

Andrew Ng says many people want to know why people would pay to attend college when they can use MOOCs instead.

“So, one question we have often been asked is if you can take all those Princeton and Stanford courses online for free, why would anyone still pay two hundred thousand dollars for a Princeton degree?”

But Andrew Ng says attending classes in person at a good university is still important. He does not believe that course content alone is the real value of attending a university like Princeton. Instead, he says, relationships between students and professors and with other students are more important.

Mr. Ng says many professors are creating on-line videos for their lectures. They then ask their students to watch the videos at home the week before class. The computer scientist notes it is lot more fun for students to work in teams at solving problems than listening to a lecture.

Many universities hope to receive return on their investments in ways other than saving on operations. Coursera, for example, plans to develop a job placement service for top-performing students. After a time, the money from that service would flow back to the schools, Andrew Ng says.

Moody’s Investor Service predicts that MOOCs will help large, famous universities gain more students. It says schools that create content for MOOCs can earn money by providing the course material to smaller schools.

But the investment service is warning that smaller, less well-known colleges may suffer because of MOOCs. It says students may want to receive certificates from major universities instead of attending a local junior college that provides traditional credits.

Recently, the University of Washington said it was the first American university to offer credit for MOOCs, credit that could be used toward a degree from the school. The university’s online courses include those in computer science, information security and risk management.

One criticism of MOOCs has been that most courses being offered are in science, mathematics and technology. But several courses in literature are now available.

Barry Nelson heads the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences at Northwestern University in Illinois. He says education has changed over time, and that educators have continued to improve their methods of helping people learn.

“I certainly think it will affect things, but I like to put things in a little bit of perspective. We have had new paradigms almost since the beginning of the printing of words in the book allowed people to learn things separately, and without the need of a university or any other kind of kind of class. And we have been doing computerated learning and distance instruction for many, many years. “

Professor Nelson says it is far from sure how much MOOCs will change college life. He said he thinks that the universities of tomorrow will combine many kinds of learning.

“How it will all go together is still up in the air. I have been of the opinion which is what universities will evolve to do is to still present some traditional classes, but that universities in some sense will be integrated.”

He also says computer-based distance learning and asynchronous learning will be part of the future university. Asynchronous learning lets students do the course work at any time. The professor predicts that those methods will be used with individual tutoring, life experience, independent study and lectures.

A problem for MOOCs seemingly arose recently when officials in Minnesota informed Coursera about an old statute. The rule said universities could not provide free online courses within the state without paying for registration.

But the problem seemingly was cleared up quickly. The state said its people were welcome to take online courses from Coursera. The Minnesota higher education office promised that it will work with the state legislature in January to amend the statute. An official said that for now, he sees no reason to require registration of free, non-credit courses.

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