Technically Philly: Penn and Temple Professors Weigh In on the State of MOOCs

Professor Werbach discussed the future of MOOCs and how he incorporates his own style into his class.

MOOC has become a buzzword in higher education these days. Universities across the country are implementing Massive Open Online Courses and providing students, as well as the general public, with free education. But many questions still surround this new form of education, most notably do they work and will they last?

A Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC for short, is by definition a course of study made available over the Internet without charge to a very large number of people. One does not need to be enrolled in school to sign up for a MOOC; they are available to all who wish to participate. The only criteria for enrollment in a class is a working Internet connection.

Over the past year local universities have gained a footing in this new wave of education. The University of Pennsylvania, considered one of the pioneer universities in terms of MOOC usage, has been offering them since 2012 and recently surpassed the 1 million enrollees mark. Temple University has also thrown their hat into the ring, with the Fox School of Business launching the university’s first MOOC, Quantitative Methods for Business, this past semester.

On the surface the idea of offering free higher-level education to all sounds wonderful and almost utopian. The notion that anyone, regardless of where they live or what their economic status is can have access to some of the top professors in the country almost sounds too good to be true, and in some eyes it is.

Currently, the biggest issue surrounding MOOCs is that no one knows how effective, if at all, they really are. Many detractors point to high withdraw rates and low completion rates as a sign that MOOCs are not a viable alternative to traditional brick and mortar classes. But those associated with the MOOCs feel as though those objections are misguided.

Kevin Werbach, a professor at Wharton and the creator of the school’s most successful MOOC, Gamification, sees the new style of education as an addition to conventional universities, not an instead of.

Matthew Baxter used an online course site to strengthen his knowledge in statistics.
Matthew Baxter used an online course site to strengthen his knowledge in statistics.

The most obvious example of that is the fact that in almost all instances MOOCs do not count for college credit. In some cases, like with Werbach’s Gamification class, students can pay a small nominal fee and receive a certificate of completion upon finishing the course, but that is more so the exception than the rule. So in their current state, MOOCs should be looked at as a means of getting free education, not a free education.

But that doesn’t mean MOOCs can’t play an integral role is the pursuit of a college degree.

“There are situations where students are taking MOOCs as kind of a study aid,” Werbach said. “You’re taking a history class in person and there’s a MOOC on that same area of history, you can take that MOOC as an additional way of understanding the material.”

Werbach also pointed to the fact that those who immediately point at enrollment to course completion ratios as a sign that this is a failing system are missing the bigger picture. In his most recent semester of Gamification Werbach estimated that he had roughly 82,000 individuals enroll in the course with about 8,300 of them completing it. While most may see a completion rate of just over 10 percent as a failure, Werbach could not disagree more.

“I’ve taught at Wharton for 10 years and in that time I’ve maybe taught 2,000 students, the most senior faculty member at Wharton has probably taught maybe 7,000 in their entire career,” Werbach said. “ And I did that in one session just counting the people that finished the class, so that’s exciting to me.”

Another aspect of MOOCs that has been placed under the microscope as of late is how effective they are in reaching anyone who doesn’t already have a college degree. When the program was first started one of its main selling points was that it was going to provide education, and by extension opportunity to those who might not have it otherwise. MOOCs were even being hailed as instrument that could help bridge the poverty gap. But a recent Philadelphia Business Journal article points to research conducted at the University of Penn showing more then 80 percent of individuals enrolled in MOOCs are already college educated.

Werbach sees this data as nothing new, and more to that point, slightly short sighted.

“Not everyone in the world that has a college degree is rich,” Werbach said. “And even a minority of all MOOC participants [without degrees] is still millions of people.”

Regardless of who is taking the classes, Dr. Darin Kapanjie of the Fox School of Business at Temple University echoes the idea that there are a great deal more to MOOCs then just completion rates.

Kapanjie and those at the Fox School of Business did not create the MOOC in hopes of seeing high completion rates (although the class did end with a little more than 10 percent of enrollees seeing it all the way through) or even as just a means of providing content to the masses, their motivation was much more promotional in nature.

“We at the Fox School go into the MOOC space as a means of [it being a] marketing and recruiting tool,” Kapanjie said. “The idea was that students would take the course, enjoy it and then hopefully enroll in our program.”

Temple is fairly unique in their approach to MOOC usage. The Quantitative Methods in Business class that is offered as a MOOC is identical to the class offered through the Fox School of Business’ online MBA program. There is a great deal more interaction between enrollees and professor Kapanajie then you would find with MOOCs offered else where and there is no peer grading which is a staple of most other MOOC offerings.

Instead Kapanjie said they wanted to maintain a more traditional style of grading.

“We partnered with Pearson MyLab and used algorithmically generated online assessments, so students watch a video and then take a post recording quiz,” Kapanjie said. “There were weekly proctored exams that students would have to register for and there would be discussion posts that I would grade, all together their final grade is based off of roughly 40 different things.”

Students at Temple utilized the technology provided to excel academically.
Students at Temple utilized the technology provided to excel academically.

The Temple MOOC also provides a bit of incentive for students to finish the course. While completion does still not garner one any credits, if a students does in fact decide to enroll in the online MBA program they will be rewarded for their efforts.

“[The MOOC] does come with a course waiver upon completion,” Kapanjie said. “So if students enrolled in our program then they wouldn’t have to take those three credits in the online MBA and they don’t have to substitute another three credits which I know some other institutions were doing. Our MOOC is essentially a 100 percent free course.”

With this type of implementation Temple has taken the MOOC and made it their own. Kapanjie noted that when starting the MOOC he didn’t look at how other universities were tackling the new program; instead he focused on what would work best for Temple and the Fox School.

“I looked at the MOOCs that were already out there and I wasn’t super impressed,” Kapanjie said. “I saw them as a mechanism to deliver content, but not so much as a real class. And that’s what we wanted to offer, a real class experience.”

It’s that attention to detail and curtailment of MOOC structure on a university-to-university basis that needs to become more prevalent if MOOCs have any chance of remaining relevant. The idea of universities simply providing MOOCs for the sake of providing MOOCs isn’t going to work.

“Universities really need to think about what is it that we do well here,” Werbach said. “And then how do we integrate in what is available outside of our walls.”

The future of MOOCs is still uncertain. Where they will eventually fall in the overall scheme of higher education will only become clearer as they develop further and more research comes to light. But with motivated and enthusiastic professors like Kevin Werbach and Dr. Darin Kapanjie striving to make MOOCs as viable as possible, it doesn’t appear that they will be going away any time soon.

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