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Are MOOCs Mainstream?

Q&A with Peter Shea, Associate Provost for Online Learning

Peter Shea, UAlbany's Associate Provost for Online Learning, provides leadership for the University's online teaching and learning strategy in collaboration with academic, administrative, and support units. (Photo by Paul Miller)
ALBANY, N.Y. (April 6, 2015) -- Last year more than six million U.S. college students enrolled in credit bearing online courses, reflecting a growth in online education of 300 percent between 2003 and 2014. Millions of additional students joined the ranks of higher education through a new kind of online offering, Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.

MOOCs are now part of the University at Albany's academic landscape, and a growing competitor in the global contest for the minds of those entering nearly all levels of higher education.

Peter Shea, UAlbany's Associate Provost for Online Learning, is cautiously optimistic about MOOCs. He provides leadership for the University's online teaching and learning strategy, in collaboration with academic, administrative, and support units. He has been on the faculty of the Department of Educational Theory and Practice since fall 2004, with a joint appointment with the Department of Informatics in the College of Computing and Information. His research focuses on technology-mediated teaching and learning in higher education. Shea is the author of numerous articles and book chapters on the topic of online learning, and co-author of "The Successful Distance Learning Student." Previously, Shea was the director of the SUNY Learning Network, the online education system for the 64 colleges of the State University of New York. We contacted him to find out more about the current state of MOOCs and their role at UAlbany.

Q. What is the state of MOOC Education in 2015?
Peter Shea: Massive Open Online Courses are a relatively new kind of post-secondary online offering. They combine large-scale, with thousands of students per online course and open enrollment that is either free or low cost. Tens of millions of learners have enrolled in MOOC courses from dozens of university providers. While they have been around for a few years, institutional participation was initially somewhat limited with major players like Harvard, Stanford, and MIT getting a lot of media attention. More recently, SUNY has become involved through a SUNY-System level affiliation with the MOOC platform provider Coursera. At UAlbany, we are exploring how they fit with our institutional strategy, as are many institutions across the country and around the world.

Q. There has been controversy about MOOCs, with some claiming they would replace traditional higher education and MOOCs have been criticized for causing low completion rates. Your thoughts?
PS: MOOCs suffered from what many call the “Hype Cycle” with an initial rush of enthusiasm and over-promise typical of high-level innovations. So, it's correct -- MOOCs are not going to replace traditional higher education any time soon, nor should they. And yes, relatively few MOOC participants actually complete the entire course – but this is pretty typical of non-credit bearing courses. Many feel that course completion isn’t a great measure of the success of open access learning environments.

Q. Why is UAlbany getting involved at this point?
PS: Well, the initial disappointment in MOOCs is sort of a shame because they hold a lot of potential for advancing public higher education’s access mission. We feel that MOOCs may hold promise for us at a strategic level, especially as we consider the possibilities for building awareness of and attracting a diverse audience to UAlbany’s traditional place-based and online academic programs. And our participation in MOOCs has also provided valuable opportunities for our graduate students to become involved in a global educational phenomenon. Each MOOC we are offering has involved graduate students in development or delivery with some students receiving internship credits.

Q. What is happening at the University at Albany with regard to MOOCs?
PS: Recently we have moved from curiosity to an active exploration stage with four faculty-led UAlbany MOOCs in process. These are being launched on two MOOC platforms – Coursera and Canvas. These platforms provide access to a worldwide audience that would be very difficult to attract otherwise, and can allow UAlbany to provide instruction in specific areas while also advancing recognition of our academic programs. For example, Professor Yvonne Harrison in UAlbany’s Rockefeller College has enrolled 13,272 learners from 179 countries in her MOOC on "The Governance of Nonprofit Organizations." Overall more than 100,000 students have enrolled MOOCs offered by SUNY institutions this year. This is a very diverse group of learners and one that could not be served through conventional instructional methods. Yet through a MOOC we can simultaneously serve communities that would not have access to this kind of instruction, such as in developing countries, while letting many potential student know there are options to continue their learning at UAlbany. (Learn more about Yvonne Harrison’s course.)

Q. What are the other MOOCs available at UAlbany?
PS: Other members of the University community are using MOOCs to explore new forms of literacy and alternative forms of credentialing and collaboration. Trudi Jacobson, Distinguished Librarian and Head of the Information Literacy Department in the University Libraries is developing MOOCs for two different platforms, Coursera and Canvas, and is working with colleagues in her department and at SUNY's Empire State College on these efforts. Their Coursera MOOC "Metaliteracy: Empowering Yourself in a Connected World" focuses on learners who want to make the most out of their active involvement in social networking, social media, and online communities. The Metaliteracy course is also currently reaching thousands of students from around the world.

Their second MOOC, on the Canvas platform is “Empowering Yourself as a Digital Citizen” and will teach students how to create, consume and share information in collaborative online environments in both mindful and ethical ways. This MOOC will also integrate elements of gaming known to motivate students, using digital badges as a form of credentialing. The course is also intentionally smaller with a cap of 500 as there will be more direct assessment of students.

The fourth UAlbany MOOC, “International Cyber Conflicts” will be taught by Professors Sanjay Goel in the School of Business and Kevin Williams of our Psychology Department in the College of Arts and Sciences. The course is in a very important and emerging area - cybersecurity. This MOOC will explore critical issues in security and privacy, and will promote better understanding of the motivations for, and consequences of, cybercrime and cyber warfare.

Q. How has UAlbany supported these MOOCs?
PS: We provided support for the development of these MOOCs through the Online Teaching and Learning Program with funds made available from the Office of the Provost and the Chief Information Officer. In addition to the MOOCs, this program has supported more than two dozen online learning projects all across the University. Through these efforts we hope to develop quality in online education and see strong alignment between the strategic goals of the University and innovative instructional practices made possible through online technologies and pedagogies.

We have another round of OTL Funding for online learning projects that help meet the University’s strategic goals. Faculty and staff who are interested in proposing a project can contact Sheila Mahan in the Office of the Provost.

Learn more about online teaching and learning at UAlbany.

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About the University at Albany
A comprehensive public research university, the University at Albany offers more than 120 undergraduate majors and minors and 125 master's, doctoral, and graduate certificate programs. UAlbany is a leader among all New York State colleges and universities in such diverse fields as atmospheric and environmental sciences, business, criminal justice, emergency preparedness, engineering and applied sciences, informatics, public administration, social welfare, and sociology taught by an extensive roster of faculty experts. It also offers expanded academic and research opportunities for students through an affiliation with Albany Law School. With a curriculum enhanced by 600 study-abroad opportunities, UAlbany launches great careers.