Saturday, October 20, 2012

MOOCs from the Employer Perspective

(Post by Mark Lewis, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Trinity University)

I have now completed the third week of my Coursera course and there isn't much new to report on that front. The lectures are getting longer. I think that is good as I previously noted that the material seemed to be a bit slight for a full course. This week's assignment was very interesting, but thankfully for me, it was only a small step up in difficulty from the previous week, not a significant one. The topic of my post this week is more to report/reflect on a conversation related to MOOCs with our department's advisory board.

The advisory board for our department consists mainly of successful alumni as well as some other local business leaders who have taken an interest in Trinity and the Trinity CS department. Most of the board was familiar with MOOCs and several had employees who were taking courses through MOOCs. Some were even paying employees to do so in order to acquire job related skill. This fact made it immediately clear that businesses are aware of the power of MOOCs and respect what they can do for continuing education in the field of Computer Science.

We asked the board how they saw MOOCs as being significant for the future of education and in particular, how they would likely impact small Universities like Trinity. There was not uniform agreement on that. There seemed to be an attitude that MOOCs could not replace the complete education of attending a college, but that they could appear as a gold star on a resume. From my perspective, it was significant that board members did not think that MOOCs could replace the normal college education. However, students taking MOOCs while in college display an extra level of dedication and interest that several of the board members thought was significant, and which they would want to see in future hires.

Trinity and MOOCs
We asked the question of whether Trinity should be involved in MOOCs and one of the first ideas that came up was something that has been discussed a bit internally at Trinity. That is the idea that we could offer MOOCs that are primarily aimed at High School students with the objective of aiding recruitment.

The board also discussed the efficiency of MOOCs. The recent move by UT to join edX was very different from previous MOOC efforts in that it really underscored the drive for improving efficiency and how they intend to use this as a mode for teaching large introductory courses. Computer Science departments are currently seeing a significant increase in enrollment across the nation and it appears to have hit Trinity this year. For that reason, using MOOC-like techniques to make teaching more efficient could be very beneficial for our department. However, the board is very aware that the environment of Trinity with a lot of access to faculty is significant, so usage of such techniques needs to be done appropriately.

The board thought that the idea of integrating MOOCs in summer school was also a very good idea. For a variety of reasons, Trinity students don't take summer courses at Trinity. MOOCs, or MOOC-like courses could get around many of the reasons for this and help to keep students more engaged year round, even during the times when we can't house them on campus. One board member noted that Trinity likely can't charge tuition for a course that involves students going through the MOOCs at Coursera or Udacity because they are for-profit and their terms of service agreements inevitably prohibit such usage.

The idea of having Trinity run a MOOC that is hosted through Coursera was mentioned as well. The board members generally liked this idea and felt that the branding was easily worth the $50k that Coursera charges. As they said, one highway sign can cost that much if it is up for a similar period of time, and highway signs won't be seen by over a million people. The challenge in this is having the right course and the right person teaching it. The value of the branding could be negative if the effort is not done well. Of course, it might be easier and more in line with the ideals of Trinity to use an open venue like edX, or even putting something together using Google Course Builder (which was mentioned in an earlier blog post). Right now edX isn't getting quite the same level of publicity as Coursera so the benefit to marketing would not be as large. Using Google Course Builder would remove the benefit of marketing almost completely, but it certainly could be a valid place to start.

One last idea that was floated was the idea of having MOOCs that combine Trinity with other local entities. For example, Rackspace is very interested in supporting cloud based education and there might be mutual benefits to having Rackspace and Trinity collaborate on something that was highly visible and met the educational objectives of both parties.