UChicago to experiment with online courses

Many faculty are reportedly interested in making massive open online courses and the University is in discussions with edX and Coursera, two existing free online course sites.

By Harini Jaganathan

The University of Chicago plans to begin experimenting with online learning materials and massive open online courses (MOOCs) in the near future, according to a faculty committee report presented before the Council of the University Senate on Wednesday.

Last September, Provost Thomas Rosenbaum appointed two committees to look into online education, both for-credit and not-for-credit. In addition to looking into how online technologies can supplement existing classes on campus, the committees also examined MOOCs in light of the growing popularity of online platforms like edX and Coursera, which currently host over 370 free courses.

Deputy Provost for Research Roy Weiss, who served on both committees and chaired the committee looking into not-for-credit offerings, said that many faculty are currently interested in making MOOCs and that the University is in discussion with edX and Coursera, two existing free online course sites.

“Over the next couple of years we imagine there will be about three [massive open online] courses. That is the order of magnitude that we’re talking about, and so there may very well be more faculty than three that wish to do this, so we’d have to somehow vet proposals for online courses,” he said.

Weiss said that the selection of courses would be conducted by a new committee appointed by Rosenbaum that will be charged with overseeing online education materials. Weiss said that faculty response to Wednesday’s presentation was largely positive and explained that the main reasons for increasing the use of online education tools is two-fold.

“We need to be offering our students the latest types of educational experiences that are available,” he said. “And the other thing is a commitment we have to society at large to enable individuals from all over the world to experience the University of Chicago education at some level.”

The report said that “one of the greatest pedagogical benefits” that online education tools offer is a “flipped” classroom model, where students watch lecture videos at home and go to class for discussion and problem-solving sessions. Stephanie Palmer, assistant professor in the Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, served on the committee looking into not-for-credit offerings and expressed interest in creating online tutorials of the mathematics and computer science background for her theoretical neuroscience course.

“Making use of the online format would let you use that time to get everybody up to speed, get your students onto the same playing field, and the tools they need to solve problems about neuroscience theory, so I think in that sense [online education] would be useful,” she said.

The report specifies that promoting “meaningful interaction” through the use of online technologies is essential with for-credit classes as well. But Sociology Department Chair Elisabeth Clemens, who served on the committee looking into for-credit offerings, said that she is not currently interested in making her classes online because she believes the intensity of discussion-based seminars for which University of Chicago is known are not easily translatable online.

Michael Schill, dean of the Law School, chaired the committee looking into for-credit offerings and said that “meaningful interaction” will vary for each department.

“One important finding is that the bulk of research so far has not shown that online education is either superior or inferior to traditional learning,” he said in an e-mail. “In short, we need much more careful research to fully understand how effective online resources can be in the educational process. It is neither a panacea for all of the challenges facing higher education, nor is it the beginning of the end of education as we know it.”