New Online Courses Present Challenges, Opportunities

Online classes may be the future of education over long distances—and in person. As UT plans its first online offerings, administrators are projecting a mix of caution and optimism.

Distance learning is nothing new. The earliest known record of something resembling a correspondence course dates to a 1728 ad in the Boston Gazette. But the newest frontier in distance learning—the free online classes known as massive open online courses (MOOCs)—is touted not just as a new form of distance education, but a 21st century update to the in-person lecture course. And now UT is getting in the game.

Between the fall 2013 and spring 2014 semesters, the University will pilot nine free online courses in fields from engineering to music. The courses are UT’s first offerings through edX, an online learning platform founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The UT System joined the edX partnership in October. The 2013-2014 offerings were vetted by faculty, and selected to represent the promise of the new—and somewhat controversial—partnership.

Some have expressed concern that globally available courses that stand up to UT’s intellectual rigor may lead to the elimination of their more traditional counterparts. But UT administrators insist the move will enhance UT’s in-person courses, help students graduate more affordably and on time, and build the prestige of the University’s brand. Even so, the University is proceeding with some caution. Some classes may be a good fit online, while others may not make the cut.

“This is highly experimental, and sometimes things aren’t going to work out for folks,” UT Vice Provost for Higher Education Policy and Research Harrison Keller told the Texas Tribune. “It’s a good lesson of being careful about the technologies that you use. These projects are on the frontier of what’s known and what’s not known for online course development.”

Catherine Stacy, assistant dean and lecturer in the College of Natural Sciences, sees challenges in mastering online learning but believes in its potential to enhance traditional brick-and-mortar classes. Along with Michael Mahometa, Stacy will teach “Foundations of Data Analysis” in the spring of 2014. She hopes the tools edX provides will improve interaction with students.

“It’s at the heart of everything we do as educators,” Stacy says, noting that online learning may not replace traditional classes at UT, but may hybridize them. The point, Stacy says, is to work together with students. “We really enjoy interacting with students.”

The process of integrating online learning may not be simply a choice for major universities like UT. Students are “voting with their feet” by turning away from traditional classes in favor of online, according to Steven Mintz, executive director of the UT System’s Institute for Transformational Learning.

“I want UT to be the national—maybe international—leader in this space,” Mintz says. His enthusiasm for blended and online learning has helped make UT a partner in edX, a move he views as not only necessary, but good for students and the University. “We have to do it,” he says, noting that faculty have driven the selection of the first, experimental online courses. Students will get personalized tools, and professors can more closely track success, moves that Mintz maintains will empower students. High production values and better use of class time are what administrators hope will draw students and professors to blended and online classes.

A historian by training, Mintz sees UT’s role in the long-term. If a move to MOOCs, for example, is a part of the course of history, then UT should lead and help shape the trend for the better.

But can an online degree be as valuable as the old fashioned degree earned by so many UT alumni?

“I want the world to know how much your degree matters,” says Mintz. “I want to make courses that will make UT alums proud.”

Photo courtesy Solo via Flickr Creative Commons.


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