Forward into the Past

America has gone mad for MOOCs—the “massive open online courses” that promise to bring higher education to all, regardless of finances or geography. This spring, Cornell announced that it was jumping into the MOOC movement, joining a nonprofit founded by Harvard and MIT to create four initial courses. Cornell joins edX and will begin to […]

America has gone mad for MOOCs—the “massive open online courses” that promise to bring higher education to all, regardless of finances or geography. This spring, Cornell announced that it was jumping into the MOOC movement, joining a nonprofit founded by Harvard and MIT to create four initial courses.

Cornell joins edX and will begin to produce MOOCs

By Jim Roberts

I n the eleventh century, scholars gathered in Bologna, Italy, to form the first educational institution to call itself a university. "Students from all over Europe came to Bologna, and by the middle of the twelfth century students are said to have numbered nearly 10,000," wrote President Emeritus Frank Rhodes in his book The Creation of the Future. "The ancient university had no campus; it owned no buildings. It was a loose community of professors and students . . . with the professors often teaching in their own apartments, paid by the students lecture by lecture for their services. It was 500 years before the University of Bologna had its own buildings. So Bologna, like other older universities, was—to use modern jargon—a virtual learning community."

As the university developed, it became a place—a residential campus where professors and students lived and worked together to engage in the business of learning. For centuries, that's how we have thought of the university. But in the past few years, an educational revolution has begun to take shape that has the potential to alter this sense of a university as a place, perhaps to return it more to its antecedents.

While the use of computers as learning tools is well established, the advent of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is something new. Often taught by leading authorities, these courses can reach thousands of students around the world and allow them to view lectures, carry out projects, and interact with the professor and each other in a social learning environment. They are an extension of the "any person" concept that Ezra Cornell could not have imagined. They are "open"—that is, anyone can take them and they're free. They can stand alone or be incorporated with on-campus work in blended courses. They promise to make higher education attainable—and affordable—for large numbers of students who might otherwise be excluded. They have great potential but are not without problems; many concerns have already been raised about their impact on higher education and the nature of the university.

Cornell began an in-depth evaluation of its possible role as a MOOC provider last year, when Provost Kent Fuchs, spurred by faculty interest, formed an advisory committee chaired by Eva Tardos, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Computer Science. In its report, the committee stated: "Online courses are in the process of transforming education. We believe that Cornell and its faculty should be a leader in this transformation. . . . Online learning will result in data about how students learn, and contribute to Cornell's scholarship related to teaching and learning. Understanding such data has the potential to lead to significant improvements in pedagogy and learning outcomes."

The advisory committee recommended that Cornell should join one of the MOOC consortia that have sprung up in recent years, concluding that "we cannot do this alone." They narrowed the choice to two leading contenders: Coursera, a for-profit company that was already working with more than thirty universities, and edX, a nonprofit launched by Harvard and MIT that features an open-source platform. The report outlined pluses and minuses of membership in each consortium.

'We will benefit from what we learn about how to use technology and what we learn about the way students interface with that technology.'In May, Cornell announced it would join edX, which now comprises twenty-seven institutions in the U.S. and abroad. "It was an alignment of vision and values," explains Ted Dodds, the University's chief information officer. "In its charter, edX lists three goals. One is to improve the residential experience at its member campuses. The second is to teach the world with these large, open classes. And the third is to capture how students appear to be learning as they are interacting—collecting this data at the mouse-click level and then having the analytics capability to say, How can we improve the learning experience?"

As a member of the consortium, the University has committed to develop four so-called CornellX courses in the coming academic year—courses that become official parts of the edX curriculum. The subjects will be selected by an ad hoc committee formed by Fuchs and Joe Burns, PhD '66, dean of the faculty. Chaired by Laura Brown, senior vice provost for undergraduate education, this committee will have representatives from the faculty and staff. In addition, there will be an opportunity for faculty members to develop other courses outside of CornellX. "We haven't set up a structure yet," says Fuchs, "but there has to be an opportunity for faculty who may not be selected [for one of the four courses], but who want to use technology in some way, even if it's just to capture their lectures on video for their current class."

Students who complete the CornellX courses will not earn college credit. They may, at some point, be able to receive a certificate of completion, depending upon the criteria developed for demonstrating mastery of the material. And, by incorporating MOOC material into on-campus blended classes, the University will not only be enhancing residential learn­ing but taking a step toward eventually awarding credit.

In one respect, Cornell had a head start in the race for online learning because of eCornell, which was founded in 2000 and has been successful in marketing professional and executive training programs. In addition, earlier this year the University received a $50,000 grant from Google to create a MOOC version of the cross-disciplinary "Six Pretty Good Books" course taught by Michael Macy, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Sociology; Stephen Ceci, the Carr Professor of Human Development; Jefferson Cowie, professor of collective bargaining, law, and history; and Jeffrey Hancock, associate professor of communication. So, in a sense, MOOC development was under way at Cornell even before the edX deal was signed.

While eCornell will continue to operate separately from CornellX, it will help to support MOOCs, both technologically and financially. Fuchs notes that a portion of eCornell's revenue stream comes back to his office. "It's my intention going forward," he says, "to take those revenues and direct them to the use of technology in education." There will be further support from philanthropy and from the development of business models by the consortia—"through certificates and other mechanisms for verifying that the students who take these classes, even though they're not getting credit, that they took it and passed it." In the end, the goal is for Cornell's MOOC program to be revenue neutral, although it may take some time for that to be realized.

The University's Academic Technologies group will support course development. This will require expansion and enhancement of Cornell's information technology capacity for education—something that Dodds says is overdue. "Looking across IT@Cornell, we need to scale up our capacity to support learning technologies, both at the center and in academic units," he says. "We're in the process of shifting more of our existing IT resources—people and infrastructure—to address this critical need, but we're not where we'd like to be yet."

The enhanced use of technology on campus, says Fuchs, is an overlooked aspect of the MOOC experience. "We will benefit from what we learn about how to use technology, what we learn about the way students interface with that technology—the social learning aspect," he explains. "So we're making an investment in our current students in addition to providing education that's available freely to the world. It is important to be doing that because, and as Ted says, we have not invested enough in technology to support education."

Estimates of the cost of developing MOOCs vary widely. Based on the combined experience of Academic Technologies and eCornell, Dodds says, a basic course can be developed for $50,000 to $75,000. Some MOOCs will undoubtedly prove to be more complex and expensive, especially with considerations for faculty time off for course preparation and production, the need for teaching assistants, the cost of multimedia enhancements, and the evolution of technology. The entire venture is experimental by nature—which Dodds sees as a plus. "No one really knows where MOOCs will end up in the longer term," he says. "We may look back in a couple of years and say, 'Remember what we thought about MOOCs back in 2013? Boy, were we off.' And that's OK. That's what's magic about it."

Tardos agrees that "room for experimentation" is a key aspect of Cornell's involvement. "No faculty or college or unit is required to generate MOOCs," she says. "It's an opportunity." EdX also has a second level called edX edge, characterized as the "fringe, exploratory domain." This will allow professors not selected for one of the official courses to work with the technology and develop their ability to create MOOCs.

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