ITS emphasizes success of online class efforts

Jasmine Gallup, Staff Reporter

Midterm week is coming up, and as usual, those students who dare to cross the threshold into their residential hall lobbies during the weeks surrounding midterms will be treated to the same sight: groups of four, or five, or thirteen students with their laptops and notebooks open, all congregating around the same television or whiteboard, trying to work out similar problems.

It’s not an unfamiliar sight. Study groups like these are always forming and reforming, spontaneously springing throughout the semester between students who take the same classes. Working with other students to try and learn similar material is a part of attending university. But until now, no one’s ever really thought about important this type of communication is to learning. Massive Open Online Courses are bringing this debate into the light. They ask a question: does online communication work to enable learning, or does it not?

Thinking about the usual ways in which we learn is important when talking about massive open online courses, because they’ve influenced the development and production of the material students registered for these courses see online.

Online courses begin with an idea. At Case Western Reserve University, they often begin with a faculty member who wants to reach beyond the CWRU community to introduce new material and new concepts to non-CWRU students. The faculty member in question pitches their class. They get a team together, within their department, to start writing a syllabus. They collaborate with Information Technology Services (ITS) to figure out the content and online structure of the class, troubleshoot, and eventually build the course in the Coursera platform. They have regular meetings to discuss the project and figure out the next steps. They work together.

CWRU already has some universally accessible online tools for learning in place. For example, every student enrolled in a large lecture class will have heard of MediaVision, a system that enables the filming and online distribution of lectures to students and is widely regarded as the best way to retroactively justify skipping class. With MediaVision, however, students who attend the university can access their course lectures at any time, watching or re-watching a professor’s explanation of a particular concept, studying it on their own time and in their own way.

So, some of the systems that enable the creation of online courses are already in place. ITS just helps professors take advantage of them. But how comparable are these online communities to a university? Are the students who are taking these courses talking to each other, engaging with each other the same way they can engage with the professor, or the online material. Or are they just staring at a screen?

If there’s anything that can be said with certainty about current online courses Case Western Reserve University is providing, it’s that they reach people outside of the university. Regardless of completion rates, developers of these online courses remain optimistic simply because of the number of and geographical diversity of the students enrolling.

According to a statement from Gina Tabasso, ITS’ Technology Communications and Education Leader “The global impact of MOOCs has provided for an incredible global footprint. Outcome measurements from Richard Boyatzis’ “Inspiring Leadership through Emotional Intelligence” have shown that, as of June 26 2013, active enrollees were from 188 countries, 25 percent of which were from The United States. In addition, on the second run of the course, as of Jan. 22, 2014, active students are from 197 countries.”

Responses from students seem to be positive as well. In a review of Dr. Boyatizis’ “Inspiring Leadership Through Emotional Intelligence,” Maria Clara Severo of Argentina wrote that “many of the students who took the course just loved Dr. Boyatzis’ way of explaining and teaching.”

Brett Walker of Australia wrote that he “found the course to enlightening and engaging to the point that it almost became my highest priority. It introduced me to concepts that I had not previously encountered in a way that really got me involved. [Boyatizis] was a great lecturer through what must be a very difficult channel for lecturer.

It seems that even through a computer screen, professors are able to reach out to and engage with their students to some degree. Though the completion rates for individual online courses remain low, members of ITS say that low completion rates aren’t the thing to focus on.

“Many students who start taking MOOCs are only there to learn the content,” read the statement from Tabasso, “not necessarily complete assignments to earn the certificate; therefore, learner intent needs to be taken into consideration before judging the success of a MOOC.”

So…are these programs successful? For those that hope that online courses might eventually replace in-class learning, probably not. But the students who take these online courses seem to be judging success in another way. It’s clear that even if they don’t end up completing the course, they get something of it. They feed an academic hunger that CWRU tries to encourage in all it’s students. They can bring expertise from Cleveland to cities on the other side of the world.

“MOOCs won’t replace traditional classes,” read the statement from Tabasso, “but they do present an opportunity to directly and indirectly increase the university’s enrollment, which results in increased revenue.”

The latter isn’t really important to students, though these online courses do get Case Western Reserve University’s name out there. The first part is what’s important. When judging the succes of MOOCs, ITS argues, we have to understand that they’re not going to replace traditional classes. But they are important in other ways.