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UVa approaches massive online courses with caution

- 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.

There are a few things universities and providers can do to make sure students are doing the work themselves. Proctoring exams - whether in-person or using webcams - can cut down on the chances of cheating. Software also can be used to monitor students' computers during a test (to make sure they're not looking up answers in another window), and instructors can randomize question order to make it harder to cheat.

"I don't think it's necessarily an impossibility for someone administering a MOOC to make sure the person taking the test is the one enrolled in the MOOC," Johnson said.

Coursera spokeswoman Danielle Brunache said the company has a few strategies to prevent cheating. Students in certificate courses have to go through a "double verification" process each time they turn in an assignment, which includes taking a webcam photo of themselves and submitting typing samples. The company uses software that picks up on individual users' typing patterns.

Like UVa, Coursera makes its students sign an honor code.

"We are aware that this is not a perfect solution, and cheating does happen, both on and offline," Brunache said.

Coursera made headlines last month when it named a new CEO - former Yale University President Richard C. Levin. Many observers saw the addition, in part, as a way of raising the company's credibility and prestige. According to a statement from the company, Levin's experience launching Open Yale Courses, a series of online introductory courses, made him an ideal candidate.

Levin was unavailable for comment.

UVa still has its reservations, but McCance said the administration sees the potential of MOOCs as a teaching tool. Administrators have yet to decide whether this new tool can truly live up to the standards set by the university's founder nearly 200 years ago.

"We believe they have enhanced UVa's brand around the world and have provided new ways for our alumni to even further increase their engagement with the university," McCance said. "Overall, we are still very much in the early stages of this experiment."

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Information from: The Daily Progress, http://www.dailyprogress.com

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