ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When it comes to MOOCs, the University of New Mexico is leapfrogging to the head of the line. By waiting until now to offer its first massive open online course, UNM has no doubt learned from mistakes made elsewhere.
MOOCs have been around for a few years. Initially, the MOOC promise was that it would democratize higher education by dramatically lowering costs and reaching out to unlimited numbers of students. In fact, two years ago The New York Times proclaimed 2012 the “Year of the MOOC.”
Since then, much of the hype has abated, and in August of last year the Chronicle of Higher Education observed that – at least in California – “the MOOC revolution came to a halt unceremoniously.” Or, as National Public Radio put it last month, “if 2012 was the ‘Year of the MOOC’ … 2013 might be dubbed the year that online education fell back to earth.”
UNM will launch its first MOOC when Professor Greg Heileman’s class on Web Application Architectures gets underway in several weeks. Unlike many other MOOCs in which the course and content are provided by a non-university company, all of the content in Heileman’s course will come from UNM. It will be information from a class he already teaches, although it will still be delivered via a private company’s technology.
It’s notable that Heileman, UNM’s associate provost for curriculum, was the one picked to launch UNM into the age of MOOCs. In recent interviews, Heileman described his course as something of an experiment. UNM sees MOOCs as “the next step in distant education,” and has signed an agreement with the company Coursera that allows the university to place the content of Heileman’s course on Coursera’s delivery system. The cost to the university was $3,000.
The company is one of two major for-profit players in the business of delivering MOOCs to the world. The other is Udacity. Both were founded in early 2012.
UNM also has a relationship with Udacity. The university awards three credit hours to students who complete a Udacity course called Introduction to Computer Science. There is no cost to UNM. The idea is to entice students who pass the course to continue their education at UNM. Before they can get university credit, however, they are required to pass a UNM-generated exam on the subject.
Once a university course is offered through Coursera or Udacity, the content can be used by another school, which would pay a licensing fee to the company. A small portion of that fee would trickle down to the original university; the amount depends on the number of students taking the course. In this way, Heileman said, UNM (or any university) could pick up a math class, for example, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the not-so-distant future, this will become a common way for MOOCs to be used, he predicted, adding, “MOOCs are like textbooks.”
Heileman said he expects generally tech-savvy students to sign up for his course – “a lot of people experimenting” – but acknowledged that a very low percentage of those who sign up for MOOCs end up completing the courses.
Data on attrition rates are sketchy, but a survey last year by the Chronicle of Higher Education placed the median number of students enrolling in MOOCs at 33,000. Although millions of students had registered for courses through Coursera, the company and its university partners had awarded only 280,000 certificates of completion.
Most students who register for a MOOC have no intention of completing the course, Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller told the Chronicle. “Their intent is to explore, find out something about the content, and move on to something else,” she said.
In general, the completion rate is about 10 percent, but it climbs considerably for students who show some indication that they plan to do the work. For those students who submit the first assignment, the completion rate is 45 percent.
“I normally teach 400 students,” said Andrew Ng, Coursera’s other co-founder. The associate professor of computer science at Stanford University told The New York Times nearly two years ago that he had just taught an online course with 100,000 students. “To reach that many students before,” he said, “I would have had to teach my normal Stanford class for 250 years.”