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March 8, 2013

UChicago considers offering open online courses

In light of the growing popularity of third-party online class platforms such as Coursera and edX that post lectures by faculty from elite institutions, the University of Chicago has begun to discuss the possibility of offering massive open online courses (MOOCs). In September, Provost Thomas Rosenbaum appointed two faculty committees to look into the issues associated with offering online classes.

One committee is looking into courses for credit and the second is looking into courses not for credit. Committee findings are expected to be released in April, according to Deputy Provost for Research Roy Weiss, who serves on both committees and is chair of the latter.

Coursera and edX host online classes on a wide range of subjects and are available for free. There are currently 62 universities partnered with Coursera, including Stanford, Caltech, and, as of this month, Northwestern. EdX, which was started by Harvard and MIT, has 12 partners in total.

“Every other major university is involved in some online learning experience. Should the University of Chicago jump on the bandwagon?” Weiss said. “We don’t necessarily have to copy what everyone else is doing, but we have to make sure that we are thoughtful about it and not left behind.”

The committees conducted interviews with representatives from multiple online platforms, conducted surveys on faculty sentiment, and examined aspects of online courses like offering certificates for completion of courses, setting requirements for the faculty involved, and maintaining standards for students who participate.

“Certain institutions look at education as dissemination of knowledge,” Weiss said. “We look at education as more than that. It’s actually educating people how to think, how to look critically at a specific subject, and how to promulgate scholarship in its highest form. ‘Could online learning meet those objectives of The University of Chicago?’ was really the question that we wanted to be sure we answered.”

The growing popularity of MOOCs could have far-reaching effects for the future of colleges and universities. Leaders of various national humanities organizations like the American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association have expressed concerns that MOOCs could potentially lead to a collapse of the job market for young Ph.D. students at small liberal arts colleges, Dean of the College John Boyer said.

Boyer said that he understood the worry but articulated the need to consider the value of MOOCs to people who cannot afford a university education.

The committees were originally scheduled to present their report to the Council of the University Senate last week, but the presentations have been postponed until April.

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