MOOCs offer affordable way to pursue higher education

The price of a higher education: motivation, more calls to the administration office than you can count and a lot of student loans. 

But now, anyone can get an education without any of those obstacles. “MOOCs” — massive open online courses — now offer online courses available to anyone in the world. The price? Free.

MOOCs first became popular in North America in 2011 when several universities — Stanford University and Princeton University among them — uploaded MOOC courses to the web. Since then, numerous universities have embraced the online learning system. Last year, Pitt began to offer five courses. The courses are six weeks long and are available to take any time.

According to the MOOC Quality Project website, the term MOOC was officially derived by Dave Cormier in 2008. The original idea of creating the MOOC, Cormier said, came with the idea that one should not be limited financially to an education.

Pitt has eight professors who teach MOOCs available to students and people around the world through the platform Coursera on topics ranging from Isocrates to Clinical Terminology. 

Michael Beach, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing, taught a MOOC class in January called Disaster Preparedness as one of five professors selected by Pitt to teach a MOOC. He said he had “absolutely no idea” the School of Nursing selected his course, but that he happily accepted the offer.  Beach’s for-credit courses at Pitt include Fundamentals of Disaster, Mass Casualty Care and Clinical Diagnostics, but after he applied to teach the MOOC, Beach said “it was only after that I realized what I was getting into.”

For his first Disaster Preparedness course, Beach said 29,000 people from all over the world, including some from war zones, signed up to take the course. The University paid Beach the same as they would have if he’d taught another regular Pitt course during the semester. 

Beach and an IT crew filmed Beach lecturing to create the course. MOOCs typically feature a PowerPoint and audio lecture, Beach said, and he wanted try a less traditional approach. Beach and the University crew videotaped at Raccoon State Park in Hookstown, Pa., to address topics including water purification, knives and shelter.

Barbara Frey, a Pitt instructional design expert, and Pitt instructional technologist Dean Croll, edited the video footage of Beach down to the most important details before loading the videos and interactive forums into the Coursera software program.  

Once the class began, Beach and his teaching assistant, Madeline Georgino, spent several hours a week responding to online chats and making sure that the students understood the material. Beach said MOOCs are meant to be more of an introduction to the topic rather than an in-depth course.

Instructors have full control over the content of MOOCs.. 

Emily Elder, a senior communication and rhetoric major, took what was originally a MOOC course and turned into a “HOOC,” a hybrid open online course, which she preferred. 

Elder signed up for a course on Isocrates when Gordon Mitchell, her Rhetorical Process professor, announced he was teaching an online course. Elder’s incentive for taking the course was the extra credit she would receive in her Rhetorical Process course.

The HOOC that Mitchell adopted consisted of weekly assignments and discussion boards, much like a traditional college class. The students enrolled in Mitchell’s course could watch live graduate seminars and ask questions.

“If I didn’t have those live interactions, then I probably wouldn’t have seen the quality in the educational experience,” Elder said. 

Johnny Chiem, a junior chemistry major, said he likes the idea of MOOCs, but that they could cause issues if they become “mainstream.” 

“It will be very beneficial for people that want to get more out of their education,” Chiem said. “Personally, I care more about what I learn than what I get from the class grades wise.”

Credit hours are not available for MOOCs, but if students pass the class, they can obtain electronic statement of proof for free, or a verified certificate of proof for $15 to $69. A passing grade is determined by the students’ participation in the online discussion board and quiz grades.

Chiem said he could also see MOOC classes being unbeneficial, since students might not be completely engaged with the class if only seeking certification. 

“A piece of paper doesn’t really mean anything until they can prove it with their actions,” Chiem said.