- Associated Press - Sunday, April 13, 2014

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) - Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, could be the wave of the future for colleges and universities, but the University of Virginia is approaching the trend with caution.

UVa is one of about 100 universities worldwide offering online courses - offered to an unlimited number of students anywhere in the world - through MOOC company Coursera. For now, most of these classes are not for college credit, but some institutions are experimenting with MOOCs that could count toward a degree.

Georgia Tech has taken it a step further, offering an entire degree program using the platform. Partnering with AT&T; and MOOC provider Udacity, the university is offering a master’s degree in computer science. The tuition is expected to be less than $7,000, according to Udacity.

Don’t expect to see that at UVa anytime soon, said spokesman McGregor McCance. The administration is concerned about the possibility of cheating and fraud, he said.

“It’s no secret that cheating is an issue online, and it’s difficult to develop ways to actually know who might be taking an online exam - especially when the courses are attracting thousands upon thousands of students,” McCance said.

Cheating is just one of the issues facing universities and providers hoping to begin offering MOOCs for credit. Advocates laud the courses as a low-cost alternative allowing people from around the world to learn from top-tier professors.

But many faculty and researchers doubt the effectiveness of the courses. Studies have shown dropout rates of more than 90 percent - a recent study of 16 open online courses offered through the University of Pennsylvania showed less than half of all registrants even watched the first lecture.

Researchers are only beginning to tap into the subject, and there’s still debate over how to measure the effectiveness of the courses.

Justin B. Thompson, an associate dean at the Curry School of Education, said they can work well for introductory courses. One of the things separating MOOCs from standard online courses - which are smaller and mostly offered to students registered at UVa - is the range of students the instructors would be dealing with.

They might or might not have some background on the subject already, he said.

“There’s an assumption in entry-level classes that many students learn a little bit about a topic and see if they want to pursue it any further,” Thompson said.

The size of MOOCs makes it much more time-consuming for instructors to grade work and monitor discussions, which could affect the amount of work offered in the class, he said. This would make it harder to teach very complex, analytically driven courses.

Students could learn basic coding, for example, but applying that knowledge to certain problems may require more interaction. Thompson compares it to learning information in a library by yourself, as opposed to taking a class.

“You’ve got a massive amount of information in that library; you can learn as much of it as time and attention allow,” Thompson said. “If you want to synthesize that information, you might want to speak with a scholar about it.”

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which handles accreditation for UVa and Georgia Tech, allows its institutions to offer MOOCs for credit. But Michael Johnson, a spokesman for the association, said it will be monitoring the programs for fraud.

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