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Indiana Colleges Divided Over Value of Free Online Classes

Even as Ball State, some elite universities and Big Ten institutions experiment with massive online open courses (MOOCs), other Indiana colleges are taking a wait-and-see approach.Even as Ball State, some elite universities and Big Ten institutions experiment with massive online open courses (MOOCs), other Indiana colleges are taking a wait-and-see approach.

MUNCIE, IND. — In her largest traditional college class, Ball State University instructor Christina Blanch taught 80 students the most the fire code would allow in the classroom.

Now she’s fielding tweets and emails from some 5,000 students around the world enrolled in her upcoming massive online open course called Gender Through Comic Books.

Among those international pupils are comic geeks and scholars. Some are students at other universities.

“They’re not getting credit for this. They’re doing this because they want to,” Blanch told The Indianapolis Star. “If I could just shake every one of their hands and say, ‘I’m just so proud of you for wanting to learn.’”

Massive online open courses, or MOOCs, are the latest craze in learning. They’re exactly what they sound like: big online classes, often free, that just about anyone can take anywhere, anytime, but usually not toward a college degree.

Bursting onto the scene less than two years ago, MOOCs are gaining momentum as national and state leaders re-evaluate higher education. Some herald MOOCs as a revolutionary way to target major learning concerns, such as affordability and accessibility.

But even as Ball State, some elite universities and Big Ten institutions experiment with the courses, other Indiana colleges are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“MOOCs are clearly a very interesting technical phenomenon,” said Gerry McCartney, Purdue University’s chief information officer. “But they’re a marketing device. They’re not an educational device. Not in their current form.”

Still, Indiana educators are watching the fad closely. At the very least, MOOCs could be catalysts for change.

As students convene on the Internet to discuss Blanch’s course, one of three MOOCs that Ball State is piloting this spring, the university will be monitoring their progress and gathering loads of data.

“We want to investigate and understand how we can use new, innovative course design and course tools,” said Jennifer Bott, assistant provost for learning initiatives at Ball State.

“The massive courses give us an opportunity to see large-scale what might work.”

Ball State caught the national buzz around MOOCs, Bott said. The cost of experimenting amounted to the time of faculty and staff to produce new courses. And MOOCs could yield valuable data about how to foster online learning communities that the university could use in its regular classes.

“The reward was higher than any risk that I could coherently identify,” she said.

Blanch’s free, six-week course pulls some material from the on-campus version that she has taught but tweaks the curriculum for the web. She nixed an in-class activity that had students read comic books in public to observe people’s reactions to men versus women, because it might not be culturally appropriate in other countries.

On the flip side, leading the class online allows her to post video responses to common questions instead of responding to students individually.

“We’re all on a steep learning curve,” Blanch said. “But we are learning.”

One of the challenges is trying to guess which teaching techniques will work best and which won’t work at all.

Dylan Starks once took a college anthropology course online and found it pretty boring. But the interactive aspect of MOOCs makes him hope Gender Through Comic Books will engage students more.

“I’m actually not sure what to expect,” said Starks, 24, an artist with Indianapolis-based hat company LIDS.

A recent Ball State graduate, Starks said online discussions, particularly those done over video, could be more robust than the traditional college lecture, where few students participate even if hundreds are enrolled.

Intrigued by using comic books to learn, Starks will do the coursework at night or on weekends.

“I’m really interested in kind of just getting dialogue started. Even though I can’t show a college credit or a little certificate, I’ll just know that personally, I was a part of this, and hopefully get the ball rolling for future courses like this.”

MOOCs aren’t a wholly new concept. Educators have been exploring distance learning and online classes for years.

About a decade ago, a few elite colleges experimented with putting content online for the general community. Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare and Columbia University’s now-defunct Fathom project were two of those early startups.

In this latest wave, several MOOC websites launched last year, including one called Coursera and another, edX, were was born from MIT and Harvard. Across the various platforms, dozens of universities have developed free classes at introductory levels and in specialty niches.

In all, MOOCs have recorded 4 million registrations, said Cathy Sandeen, the American Council for Education’s vice president of education attainment and innovation.

Most students seem to fall in the category of lifelong learners, people older than college-aged students, who are seeking intellectual pursuit just for fun.

The American Council for Education recently won a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to study MOOCs. Among the questions to answer: Who are the students enrolling in MOOCs, and how well are they learning? Can MOOCs count toward college credits? How can MOOCs be integrated into traditional universities?

“It’s still evolving,” Sandeen said. “I think the jury’s still out whether this will revolutionize higher education, but I think we’re seeing a high level of interest and experimentation.”

One standout statistic: Despite the flood of interest and hype surrounding MOOCs, Sandeen says the courses have just a 9 percent completion rate.

That’s part of the reason Indiana University and Purdue haven’t taken the leap into MOOCs yet. The courses make learning more accessible and affordable, but officials say they still wonder what MOOCs are worth.

Both schools say they prefer to focus on improving online efforts that benefit their tuition-paying, degree-seeking students.

“We’re trying to be very careful with the Indiana University reputation and what people in the state of Indiana expect from us,” said Barbara Bichelmeyer, IU’s online education office director and associate vice president of university academic planning and policy.

IU announced last fall an $8 million, three-year initiative to expand its online education.

“Our students are pushing us to consider how we use online as part of a good-quality, effective, affordable and convenient educational experience,” Bichelmeyer said.

“What we’re learning from online,” she added, “is helping us revisit how we deliver on-campus programs.”

At Purdue, tech chief McCartney is keeping an eye on MOOCs.

“There’s a threat here,” he said. “We have to watch what’s going on. Does that mean we have to jump up and down like crazy? Not necessarily.”

The key, McCartney says, would be to combine the broad reach of MOOCs with other innovations that ensure a quality education.

In its own technology experiments, Purdue has created a system, Signals, that can detect when students are struggling in class.

The university also has a Passport program of “badges,” a kind of online credit that students can earn from mastering certain skills.

“Tie it all together,” he said, “and now we’re cooking a little bit.”

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