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ACE/AIR Forum Explores Impact of MOOCs on Students, Institutions

October 04, 2013

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Millions of students around the world have signed up to take massive open online courses (MOOCs) and many institutions are offering them or weighing doing so.

That makes it vital for higher education researchers and other experts in the field to evaluate the early impact of these courses and assess their long-term potential, said members of a panel assembled by ACE and American Institutes for Research (AIR).

The Oct. 2 forum, Will MOOCs Pass the Test: Evaluating These New Online Courses, was moderated by Gina Burkhardt, AIR executive vice president. Panelists included Cathy Sandeen, ACE vice president for education attainment and innovation; Jessica Heppen, AIR principal research analyst; Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera; and Karen Vignare, associate provost, Center for Innovation and Learning, University of Maryland University College (UMUC).

There is widespread interest in who MOOCs are serving and what difference these new types of online courses are making for students as well as institutions, Burkhardt said in framing the discussion.

Many MOOC students are so-called “leisure learners” who already possess college degrees. But Sandeen noted that ACE launched a MOOC evaluation and research initiative last fall partially in response to students who wanted academic credit for MOOC courses and by questions about whether MOOCs could help increase the country’s attainment rate by shortening the pathway to earning a degree.

Heppen said that in examining MOOCs as possible tools to expand access and provide flexible options for adult and at-risk students, researchers must assess the design and quality of the courses; look at how to increase participation and completion of at-risk students; and, more broadly, evaluate the impact of MOOCs on the overall higher education system, national economy and society as a whole.

Ng said that as Coursera nears its two-year mark, he is struck by the richness of the MOOC experience. 
MOOCs are attracting a large number of educated individuals seeking high quality, flexible education for personal enrichment, Sandeen said. Nevertheless, she added, there remains an important need for traditional degrees, certificates and credentials from degree-granting institutions.

Similarly, Vignare said that while there are questions about how MOOCs will affect the role of faculty, she doesn’t believe MOOCs will replace the need for them. And Vignare noted that despite all the publicity surrounding MOOCs in recent months, UMUC students have not yet requested credit for MOOCs.

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