May 10, 2013

From homework to network

UChicago’s plans for online open courses expand upon its commitment to making education accessible.

Last Wednesday, the University announced that it would begin experimenting with massive online open courses (MOOCs) in the near future. This development follows through on plans initiated in September 2012 by Provost Thomas Rosenbaum, who established two committees to look into the prospects of online education technology for both University students and off-campus audiences. University faculty has, by and large, responded positively to plans to unveil three not-for-credit courses in the next few years. The proposal builds on Open Climate 101, an online version of David Archer’s Global Warming class, which is currently the only course that the University offers to the public via the Internet. Considering its leadership and prestige in the academic community, the University is long overdue in providing a diverse array of online materials to the public. It should prioritize the development of MOOCs not only in light of the extensive online efforts of peer institutions, but also because it aligns with the University’s commitment to providing quality education to people of all backgrounds.

Online education has gained momentum in the past few years. In 2012, Harvard and MIT launched edX as a response to growing demand. The courses offered on the site are open to the general public and especially benefit those who are interested in higher-level coursework, but who are unable to afford a traditional college education. Since the inception of edX, 10 more universities have begun contributing not-for-credit courses to the platform, and “over two hundred institutions around the world” have expressed interest in adding content as well, according to the edX Web site. UChicago is currently considering edX as a platform for its MOOCs, along with Coursera, a site that follows a similar model. When it begins to contribute content, the University will join many world-class institutions in opening higher education to anyone with access to a computer and the desire to learn.

Such an accomplishment will further the University’s mission to broaden the opportunity for education, a vision that is already reflected in UChicago Promise, its commitment to providing substantial aid even during times of economic hardship, and in the construction of University centers in Beijing and New Delhi. As some faculty and the Maroon have expressed, online courses are no substitute for the rigor and engagement that the UChicago classroom experience fosters. Even so, the offerings that are currently being proposed work toward a goal that is entirely unrelated to the standards according to which the University confers credit. In a Maroon op-ed published today, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Jim Nondorf speaks to this goal, encouraging the University to “continue to provide access to students from a wide range of backgrounds whose varying perspectives enrich the University’s intellectual culture and underscore our core values.” While Nondorf’s statement was geared toward supporting UChicago students, the vision of opening the University to a greater audience—whether that be on campus or online—still holds.

The University has the means and intellectual clout to push the development and adoption of MOOCs in academia further and faster, and should take advantage of both as it proceeds. Even within our own campus, there are promising signs for a future of widespread online offerings that could go far beyond these initial efforts. Deputy Provost for Research Roy Weiss told the Maroon that there “may very well be more faculty than three” interested in designing online courses. Enthusiasm among faculty members suggests that there is real belief that retooling and redefining classroom boundaries presents a powerful opportunity to bridge the gap between academia and the intellectual community that exists beyond it.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.