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May 2, 2013

The good, bad, unknown of online ed

Cynthia Golden, director of the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education, talked about MOOCs and more in her presentation, “Online Learning at Pitt and Beyond,” at the April 18 Senate plenary session.

Cynthia Golden, director of the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education, talked about MOOCs and more in her presentation, “Online Learning at Pitt and Beyond,” at the April 18 Senate plenary session.

“For the last 20 years or so, those of us who have worked in educational technology and the learning sciences have been talking about the impact that the right technologies can have on learning,” said Cynthia Golden, director of Pitt’s Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE).

Interest has been magnified over the past year or so, she said.  “We’re starting to see a much broader interest in what’s possible and how we might think a little bit differently about teaching and about learning in our very connected world,” said Golden in her Senate plenary presentation “Online Learning at Pitt and Beyond.”

“There’s a lot of excitement, I think, about the possibilities, but there’s also a lot of concern that we don’t let our focus on technology displace what we think is important about education.”

Golden said multiple factors are contributing to the recent interest. “A number of conditions are working together to make the time right for new ways of looking at learning,” she said.

The ubiquity of the network is one.

“The Internet is reaching more people than ever before at phenomenal rates. People can now connect to resources that never were accessible before,” she said. “We’re also seeing the ‘bring your own device’ kind of phenomenon, where students are coming to campus with some kind of smart device — a mobile device, a laptop, an iPad — and they’re using it in really all aspects of their lives, not just in education and coursework.”

Along with improved access, Golden said, “I really believe that the educational software tools have improved as well: Things like cognitive tutors and simulation and gaming software and adaptive learning platforms and other learning tools are better now than they’ve ever been and they show a real impact on learning.

“I think when this combines with the economic pressures we have been under — particularly in higher education and public higher education and the legislative pressures for more accountability and more affordable educational opportunities — we really do have conditions that together serve as a catalyst for new directions in online learning.”

Online education on the rise

Golden noted that a 2012 Sloan Survey of Online Learning found that the rate of growth for online courses has slowed to 9.7 percent — the lowest in a decade. But she added that 6.7 million students — an all-time high — were taking at least one course online last fall, an increase of 570,000 over the previous year.

In addition, 64 percent of universities in the study indicated they offer fully online degree programs, she said.

Technology at Pitt

“Pitt was an early adopter of learning management systems,” Golden said, “We have been using what we call CourseWeb [Pitt’s implementation of the Blackboard learning management system] since 1999.” Today, about 58 percent of Pitt courses use CourseWeb, in line with national averages.

In fall 2011, the University automated the creation of courses in Blackboard, Golden said. “There’s no special request required on the faculty member’s part to set up a course. They’re automatically set up for you so classes can get started very quickly.” She added, “Students have really come to expect the use of CourseWeb for the basic functionalities like storing syllabi or assignments or readings. They’re always there and always accessible.”

A subset of faculty use CourseWeb to go beyond the basics, she said. “These are courses that are actually delivering some of their content online and using the face-to-face time in an alternative kind of way.”

Types of online courses

Beyond traditional courses, which don’t use online technology, there are several types of technology-enhanced courses, Golden said.

Many Pitt courses that use CourseWeb/Blackboard fall into the category of web-facilitated courses, in which up to 30 percent of the content is delivered through online technology.

There also are blended or hybrid courses, in which a significant amount of the content is delivered online.

In these, “Faculty often use tools outside of  the classroom, like online discussions for interaction with students,” she said. “Sometimes these classes have fewer meetings and use the technology outside of class.”

Then there are fully online courses, which typically have no face-to-face meetings “and all of the content or most of it is online,” she said.

Technology-enhanced strategies

Golden said lecture capture — audio or video recording of lectures for students’ use — is growing at Pitt.

“We indeed have some Pitt faculty who routinely record all their lectures and make them available to students within a day or two of the class,” Golden said.

“Students like this. They have a way to revisit complex material that’s presented in class, they can clarify their class notes, they can review important concepts. If a student misses a class, they can access the recorded lecture.”

Faculty who fear that recording will result in them teaching in an empty lecture hall needn’t worry, she said.

“I know there’s concern about that having an impact on class attendance: however, there have been studies that report that the lecture capture recordings do not impact a student’s decision whether or not to attend class.”

Some faculty use the  “flipped classroom” approach, requiring students to view recorded lectures outside of class to free class time for more interactive kinds of activities. “Some of our faculty at Pitt have been flipping their classrooms for years and taking away a few lectures, replacing them with interactive discussion time and time for group activities or active learning,” she said, noting that the Swanson School of Engineering is among the areas at Pitt moving toward flipped classroom models for many of its courses.

In addition, Golden said strategies such as simulation and games are on the rise. Online discussions also are common, and blended courses at Pitt often use interactive tools that provide immediate feedback to support mastery learning.

Fully online classes at Pitt

While not all of Pitt’s distance learning courses and programs (including some that use real-time videoconferencing) come under the PittOnline umbrella, the PittOnline program offers some 250 courses and a total of 10 asynchronous graduate and professional level programs in education, nursing, business, gerontology and information sciences, Golden said. “And we are busy working on courses for next fall.”

About MOOCs

MOOCs, which began about five years ago with some faculty independently offering free courses as part of the open courseware movement, will continue to be in the spotlight. “The very early courses tended to come from the STEM fields and you’ll find a lot of computer science and engineering courses when you look at the early MOOCs, but at this point there are MOOCs from almost all disciplines,” Golden said.

“Essentially they’re online courses, they’re free, anyone can take them,” Golden said. “The enrollment is unlimited, so it’s not unusual to see a course with thousands, tens of thousands or even 100,000 people registered for a course.”

Faculty members who are working on MOOCs develop their course with a team that includes an instructional designer and information technology expert.  And, once the course is implemented, “TAs are critical for support,” Golden said.

MOOCs, which often are structured like a semester-based course, consist of video lectures, quizzes, readings, discussion forums and assignments, along with assessments that can be machine-graded or peer-graded, she said.

“A student actually watches video, does readings, much like they would in a regular course. They do their homework assignments, they take their assessments and there is an interactive component.

“That’s something that the founders of these MOOC groups have said has been very important to them, so there is a lot of online discussion across forums, and students even have informal meet-ups,” Golden said.

“They arrange to get together in the town they’re in if they find they’re taking the same course. Sometimes faculty announce they’re going to be in another town and invite students to come and meet them there as well.”


Pitt will launch five MOOCs this summer through its partnership with Coursera: two courses from the School of Education, one from engineering and one from nursing, said Golden, adding that, as of mid-April, 92,000 people were registered in the Pitt courses.

Golden said there are 3.2 million students taking 336 courses from 64 different universities through Coursera, with 40 percent of students coming from the developing world.

She explained that although there are a number of organizations through which universities can offer MOOCs, Pitt chose to work with Coursera for several reasons.

“We determined this was an opportunity for us to experiment with this new approach and see what we could learn about teaching very large courses online and what we could apply to our own teaching here on campus.”

In addition, the affiliation gives Pitt access to data from the courses, enabling the study of how people learn on a large scale. “So it’s kind of like having a live laboratory,” Golden said.

Some statistics from Coursera show that of students who initially enroll, about half actually start and watch at least one video; about one-quarter take a quiz, and a smaller number do the assignments.

“At the very end, between 3 and 6 percent actually get a certificate of completion or an acknowledgement that they’ve done all the work for the course,” Golden said.

Course credit isn’t always the students’ goal, she noted.

“Coursera’s initial surveys of students said that many students are not necessarily motivated by the certificate or they don’t want to take exams … but they simply want to learn more about the topic,” citing general interest, curiosity or enjoyment as their reasons for signing up, she said.

Faculty benefits

“The campus discussion about MOOCs has led to a lot more campus discussion about pedagogy and teaching,” Golden said,  noting that faculty members from other universities have attested that the work involved in developing a MOOC has led them to rethink their course materials or become more student-centered in their teaching.

“Those who are teaching MOOCs also say that bringing a more global perspective into their face-to-face classrooms has been very valuable,” Golden said.

Some faculty, she said, are flipping their on-campus classrooms by requiring their students to participate in the MOOC for the lectures, then using their classroom time for more in-depth discussions and activities.

Questions remain

“With anything that moves this rapidly and in such an experimental way, there’s bound to be a lot of questions,” Golden said. “Right now I think we have more questions than we have answers, but it’s my opinion that as things continue to evolve, MOOCs will find their place in higher education. It’s still yet to be seen how we’re going to cover the financial costs of producing MOOCs, how to make money doing so,” Golden said.

“There are questions surrounding whether to grant credit and under what conditions; some people worry that proliferation of MOOCs will produce a class of celebrity professors,” she added.


Technology plays a role, but teaching remains key, Golden said. “MOOCs are one tool that we have to add to our collection of teaching tools. As we learn more about them, we’ll figure out how, exactly, they fit into the greater scheme of things,” she said.

“No matter where the MOOCs take us, here at Pitt or in higher education in general, good teaching is good teaching and that is where our primary emphasis should be.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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