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VOL. 39 | NO. 43 | Friday, October 23, 2015

Tennessee universities embrace online courses

Vanderbilt has had 12,500 course completions in 2 years

By Jeannie Naujeck

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When MOOCs (massive open online courses) hit the Internet three years ago, they promised to bring the resources of the world’s top universities to the furthest corners of the globe – at least those with Internet access.

Enticing would-be learners with free online classes in everything from Roman architecture to cloud computing, websites like Coursera.org and edX.org enrolled millions of people – 25 million, in fact – since 2012.

But MOOCs quickly revealed a weakness – low completion rates, with as few as four percent of enrollees actually finishing the courses. As it turned out, many were charmed by the idea of free, no-commitment, high-quality classes, but few actually had the motivation to complete them.


“I myself have signed up for three MOOCs and never finished them. You get busy; you have a job,” explains John Sloop, associate provost for digital learning at Vanderbilt University, who oversees efforts to incorporate educational technology campus-wide.

“But still, they’re doing something interesting in terms of offering education outside of economic barriers. We would be foolish not to be experimenting as a university, and we wanted to get into the game because we saw a lot of benefit.”

Those potential benefits are becoming clearer as MOOC platforms evolve. Now, along with producing single classes for free consumption, Vanderbilt and other top universities are beginning to create MOOC “specializations” – a series of classes in a topic that can be taken sequentially to give the learner expertise in a subject matter. Those classes, successfully completed, can be graded and certified, leading to actual credentials.


“We’re close to having 12 classes interconnected,” says Doug Schmidt, professor of computer science at Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering, who is creating a specialization in computer programming for Android for Coursera.

“That’s getting very close to what people would take if they wanted to major in computer science.”

Small fee makes a difference

Specializations are a fairly recent Coursera initiative and are being developed by numerous universities in a wide range of skills-based topics. Most sequences consist of five courses and a final, real-world “capstone” project.

Those who enroll in a specialization pay a small fee and receive a certificate they can use as a credential.

What’s more, they open up the potential for significant new revenue stream for the university while still keeping education affordable for learners.

After the initial wave of MOOCs, researchers found charging people even a nominal amount for classes significantly increased completion rates.

“If they pay even a little bit, it seems like students, the learners, are more motivated to complete. Across the board that’s true,” explains Gayathri Narasimham, assistant director for education and research at the Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning, which supports the university’s educational technology efforts.

Since Vanderbilt produced its first MOOC two years ago, it has enrolled nearly one million learners in its classes. Of those, only about 12,500 have followed through and completed one, Narasimham says.

While the percentage of completers may be small, she notes, the raw number is impressive compared to Vanderbilt’s on-campus enrollment, which is approximately 12,000 students across four undergraduate and six graduate and professional schools.

What’s more, the MOOC enrollment also represents significant worldwide exposure to the Vanderbilt educational brand, which is at least as important as revenue to Vanderbilt at this point as it ramps up its pipeline of MOOCs.

Schmidt says the scale of a worldwide audience means popular MOOCs can potentially generate significant revenue.

“What is exciting about MOOCs is that for the first time in history, you can actually bring in enormous amounts of funding. If you have a MOOC that runs once a month and you’re able to get 1,000 people to take it at $50 bucks a pop, that’s $50,000,” he adds.

“If you can repeat that once a month, and have all the courses running simultaneously, if you play your cards right you can bring in substantial amounts of funding.”

MOOCs could also potentially draw students to enroll at Vanderbilt, after they are able to taste the quality of instruction.

25 million enrolled worldwide

MOOCs are different from online classes that can be taken for credit toward a degree. Such programs are widely available at accredited universities and either partially or fully replace campus-based classes with online classes. They require college enrollment, charge tuition and result in a college certificate or degree.

In contrast, MOOCs are free and require only an email address to gain access. Due to their easy availability, they attract everyone from disadvantaged people with a sincere desire to learn to browsers who enroll merely to see the details of a course curriculum.

The monetization of MOOCs is a significant new development for the two main MOOC platforms, Coursera.org and edX.org, both of which were founded in 2012 and have their roots at several of the world’s most prestigious and innovative research institutions.

Coursera was founded by Stanford professors and edX is a joint project of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A screen grab from one of Douglas Schmidt’s online courses through Vanderbilt University.

Coursera, the larger of the two, currently offers nearly 1,500 classes from 133 educational partners worldwide, from Princeton, Duke and Brown universities in the U.S. to the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, China’s Fudan University and Koc University in Istanbul, Turkey.

EdX has enlisted Boston, Georgetown, Columbia and Cornell universities, as well as the Sorbonne Universites in France, the University of Tokyo and Seoul National University in South Korea.

Since 2012, more than 25 million people worldwide have enrolled in a MOOC. Completion rates range from four percent for humanities courses taken mainly for personal enrichment into the double-digits for skills-based technology courses such as computer programming that by their nature lend themselves to online teaching.

Vanderbilt was a relatively early entrant into MOOCs, thanks to the early prodding of faculty like Schmidt, a professor of computer science and MOOC enthusiast, and Sloop, a professor of communication studies.

They credit Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos with a bold sign-off on incorporating educational technology both in and out of the classroom. Ed tech, in fact, became one of the four themes of Vanderbilt’s Academic Strategic Plan for the next decade.

Changing lives

One criticism emerging from the early excitement over MOOCs was that the people who took them were people of relative privilege who already had degrees and could probably afford to pay for the class.

Of the more than 25 million people taking MOOCs over the past three years, the majority came from developed countries, and about 80 percent have a bachelor’s degree, according to a study published in Harvard Business Review in September titled, ‘Who’s Benefiting from MOOCs, and Why.’

However, the benefits of completing a MOOC were more pronounced among people of lower education and socioeconomic status, including those living in developing countries.

Those disadvantaged seekers were the most likely to report tangible career benefits such as gaining skills to find a job or beginning their own business. (People of higher socioeconomic status were more likely to use MOOCs for career advancement).

They were also more likely to report using the MOOC for educational benefits such as gaining academic knowledge that was not otherwise available to them.

Schmidt says he has personally seen the promise of MOOCs to identify talent and help students in disadvantaged environments reach their full potential.

Last year, the student who won the prize for his capstone project in a computer science MOOC came from a town in India that was so remote no one from his university had ever traveled to the U.S. The student contacted professors after the course was over and asked if he might come to Vanderbilt as an intern.

“We took a look at his work, which we had online, of course, and we thought he was really talented, so we brought him over for 10 weeks last summer,” Schmidt explains.

“He was from such a disadvantaged place that his family had to scrape together their life savings to buy him an airline ticket. And the chancellor of his university personally met with him to congratulate him for being the first person to come to the United States. It was a big, big deal.”

Once here, the student did a fantastic job, Schmidt adds.

“He was one of the best students we’ve ever had, and he was only an undergrad. Now he is back in India finishing his degree. And when he is done he is coming back to the U.S. to go to grad school. He never would have had that opportunity, and we never would have met him, if we hadn’t had the MOOC as a way to connect us,” Schmidt says.

“If you grow up in a house with a dirt floor you tend to want to find yourself in a nice place eventually. I’m sure he will be successful, and I know he’ll come to the U.S. But whatever he does, his life will be changed.”

Cross-institutional collaboration

When MOOCs first emerged, some observers sounded an alarm, warning that they might lead to the end of the traditional, far more costly, campus-based college education. That has not proven to be the case.

“Now that the MOOC bubble has burst, it is clear that digital technology and online learning is not ‘The Terminator,’ but rather a tool that will be used by colleges and universities in different and innovative ways,” explains Mike Schoenfeld, who served as vice chancellor at Vanderbilt for 11 years and now has a similar role at Duke University.


Duke professors have developed more than 30 MOOCs for Coursera, logging 2.8 million enrollments resulting in more than 72,000 certificates of completion.

“For a place like Duke, MOOCs – or whatever we end up calling them – won’t replace the very intense and enriching residential experience for students and faculty,” Schoenfeld explains.

“What it will do is extend the university’s expertise (and brand) to new communities, provide opportunities for meaningful teaching and research collaboration regardless of geography, and allow us to move quickly into new areas.”

Indeed, Vanderbilt’s Schmidt points to cross-institutional collaboration as one of the prime benefits of the online platform.

The multi-course Android programming specialization Schmidt is launching was developed and taught with Adam Porter, a friend and colleague from his grad school days, who is now a professor at the University of Maryland.

“Even though we had collaborated for years on research projects, there was just no way for us to collaborate on teaching,” Schmidt says.

“There was the University of Maryland campus and there was the Vanderbilt campus, and we weren’t going back and forth. So MOOCs allow us to be able to collaborate and share ideas and align assignments and projects in ways that we just couldn’t have done before. That really is an example of a transformational technology where you can only do it through digital means.”

The sequence of about a dozen classes will teach learners from how to program mobile applications for Android, then connect the apps to cloud servers. Those who complete the beginner sequence will gain the skills and background to move on to the intermediate and advanced level MOOCs Schmidt has already produced.

Next month, the Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning will officially launch its on-campus production studio where faculty will soon be able film online lessons in a “self-serve” model requiring minimal assistance from staff. It’s hoped the studio will encourage faculty to incorporate videotaped lessons into the classroom as well as tempt them to consider creating a MOOC.

With a number of new MOOCs in the pipeline, Sloop says nearly all of Vanderbilt’s colleges have been represented, except for law and divinity, and those are on the horizon: law school faculty have submitted six MOOC proposals.

Even if individual MOOCs and specializations never return a dime, Sloop says they are still worth the investment.

“What universities do is not just educate their students but help in educating the world in one way or another,” he adds.

“The research we do is supposed to produce something good for society. By the same token, this is a way to take the teaching that we do and offer at least some taste of it to the world. Otherwise, why be a research university? I sincerely mean that.”

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