Jonathan Salvovits sits in his bedroom going over an online finance quiz last month.
Friday night Dr. Keith Devlin stayed up until 3 a.m. editing videos. For every hour of video he produces, he estimates he puts in almost 30 hours of work. Devlin has become meticulous about his videos because starting Monday over 50,000 people will be watching them.
Devlin is a Mathematician who teaches at Stanford University, but starting Monday he will be part of a growing trend — teaching Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
MOOCs first made a name for themselves last fall when Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun offered his graduate-level artificial intelligence course to anyone who was interested — 160,000 people around the world signed up.
Since Thrun’s first class, many professors and universities have begun experimenting with the teaching style.
Devlin usually teaches 20-25 students at a time. Opening up his methods to 50,000 will be a completely different experience, but he couldn’t resist the opportunity to expand his teaching scope.
“I’ve always looked at different media to extend reach of classroom teaching to different audiences and doing it different ways. When we get a new medium coming along like the MOOC I couldn’t resist it, I wanted to try it out and see what the advantages and disadvantages are,” Devlin said.
John Mitchell, vice provost for online learning at Stanford University, says that the school provides funding for the professors to try out the courses. Equipment and editing costs also come out of university’s budget and Stanford is paying graduate students to conduct research to test the program’s effectiveness.
Usually only 10% of the original students who sign up for MOOCs complete the course. Even with such a high dropout rate in mind, Devlin believes the numbers are still large enough to truly make a difference in some student’s lives.
“For one, in 10 they’ve got something really significant — they have gotten a Stanford course and they’ve gotten something out of it,” Devlin said.
“It’s good to see that some schools are taking the issue of expensive education to heart and giving online lectures just for the sake of education. If people want to learn, they should be able to,” said Tommy Adelson, a University of Michigan junior, another school that has signed on to the MOOC trend.
Devlin sees teaching MOOCs as beneficial to classroom teaching as well.
“I think everyone who designs and gives a MOOC will reflect so deeply about their teaching methods — they have to, to give a MOOC — that their teaching will improve overall,” said Devlin.
Although many professors are excited by the opportunities to open their material to the world, not everyone believes Internet-style lectures are beneficial.
“The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can. It doesn’t matter who is sitting out there on the Internet watching; the course is what it is,” Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at University of Virginia, said in his New York Times opinion column.
Lainie Vinikoor, a senior at University of Oregon, has taken online courses but wouldn’t want her entire course load to be online.
“I liked the convenience of the online class, but your education isn’t about convenience,” Vinikoor said.
While Devlin believes MOOCs can’t replace the debate and discussion that takes place in the classroom, he can see online video lectures ultimately taking the place of the time students spend sitting in lecture halls.
Mitchell believes MOOCs still have a lot to be worked out, but the basic idea of putting lectures online is the way of the future.
“I don’t see these as the end of physical universities — I see them as the end of the physical lectures at universities,” Mitchell said.
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