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Summit examines UI’s role in online education

INSIDE ILLINOIS, Nov. 15, 2012 | Mike Helenthal, News Editor | 217-333-5491  [Email | Share ]

What now? That question was asked in a variety of ways Nov. 1 as faculty members representing a wide range of disciplines met at the Summit on Online Education to contemplate the university’s place in the burgeoning world of massive open online courses. (View video of the summit.)

Phyllis M. Wise
Phyllis M. Wise
| Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

The UI joined the MOOC world earlier this year after Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise, with the support of campus academic leadership, signed an agreement to offer 10 free, UI-certified classes on the Coursera online platform.

Coursera has made national news by putting together a large and growing list of top-tier universities, which together are offering a large and growing selection of free online courses accessible by anyone in the world with a computer. The UI was the first land-grant university to join the consortium.

So far, the number of those taking the online courses has been astounding, said Daphne Koller, Coursera’s co-CEO and co-founder, who gave the summit’s keynote address. (See story.)

Since it began a year ago, Coursera has attracted 6 million users, adding students at a rate of 70,000 per week from far-flung locales around the world. The UI’s courses have drawn 160,000 users to date.

Daphne Koller
Daphne Koller
| Photo provided by Stanford University

Koller said MOOCs represent a strong step toward delivering “education for everyone.”

“Changes are taking place day by day, if not minute by minute,” Wise told a capacity crowd of 350 at the Illini Union. “(The numbers) really speak to the importance of the topic. I find it terribly exciting.”

But a new foray into online education also is fraught with uncertainty, something the chancellor said can be overcome only through informed debate and diligent planning. To that end, the chancellor has created a faculty-led course-review committee and an implementation committee that will make policy recommendations to the Urbana Academic Senate.

Wise said all debate should be framed by the notion that offering education to the masses is part of the UI’s land-grant mission.

“It’s so much a part of what we’re all about,” she said of the potential of MOOCs to meet that calling.

In addition to Koller’s presentation, the summit featured two panel discussions and ample opportunity for faculty members to ask questions and debate the pros and cons of expanding the university’s MOOC presence.

Ilesanmi Adesida
Ilesanmi Adesida
| Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

In lunchtime remarks, Ilesanmi Adesida, the provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, challenged faculty members to investigate and discover groundbreaking ways to utilize MOOC and other technology-based tools.

“We must adapt, we must incorporate new teaching models and new teaching modes, we must innovate in the classroom and we must reach out beyond the borders of our campus,” he said. “We should be about the process of innovation. That is the DNA of


Adesida said one of the unsolved problems is in finding a business model that would provide some form of monetary return to cover the amount of resources needed to develop MOOCs. It’s estimated to cost between $50,000 and $100,000 to repackage a lecture-style course as a MOOC.

He said conversations should also include ways to share the courses with high schools in Illinois and that results should also improve current teaching methods generally across campus.

“This doesn’t replace the need for faculty members,” he said, “but these forms (we have now) simply are not good enough anymore. Innovations in the classroom are essential to the life of the university in the 21st century. Illinois is used to leading and we must be leaders in this conversation.”

In the morning panel session, English professor emeritus and panelist Cary Nelson called online education a “rapidly moving target” that offers cost- and time-saving advantages, but lacks the face-to-face instruction he believes is fundamental to receiving a high-level education.

He said the arrival of MOOCs, and their emphasis on wide access and technological technique, threatens sound, traditional teaching.

“We will not return to better teaching (through MOOCs),” he said. “What everything suggests is that we’re moving in the opposite direction.”

Panelist Allen H. Renear, the interim dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, said offering students online choices isn’t necessarily an all-or-nothing proposition.

Through his college’s LEEP online master’s program, students can choose from 130 online courses but must participate in a 10-day on-campus “boot camp” where they meet with instructors and mingle with other online classmates.

“LEEP is not massive,” he said. “That knowledge (from the boot camp) shapes my interactions with (students) and the content of the course.”

He said the hybrid model has been highly successful and that the online courses are detailed and engaging.

“There are a lot of components that are coming together,” he said of online course technologies. “It’s a continuation of a lot of deeply rooted, exciting technological advances.”

Panelist Rob Rutenbar, a professor of computer science, said whatever the outcome, educators will be wise to reconsider how they deliver content within a technological landscape that is changing so quickly.

“I don’t discount this is going to upset some business models,” he said. “How do you take a step back and deliver (content) to 30,000 or 40,000 people?”

Moderator Nicholas Burbules, a professor of education policy, organization and leadership, said it was obvious from the discussion that many questions still need to be answered before MOOCs are fully embraced on campus.

But he said the summit discussions had gone a long way to start the conversation about the role of MOOCs – which may turn out to be part of a set of options than can be fine-tuned to serve all learning levels.

“One of the greatest myths … is there’s one model that works for everyone,” he said. “The MOOC model is already evolving into something else. There are a lot of models out there that are still being developed.”

He challenged faculty members to “think out of the box” and find ways to further revolutionize the online education movement, which includes developing a sustainable business model.

“Funding is a core existential question for this university,” he said. “I don’t think the current model is sustainable as it is and there will never be enough financial aid. We need to be asking these critical questions.”

The summit was sponsored by the Provost’s office and the Office of Online and Continuing Education. Co-organizers included the College of Education’s Ubiquitous Learning Institute, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

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