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Pitt revisits free open online courses

| Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, 8:50 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
University of Pittsburgh Nursing Assistant Prof. Michael Beach sits for a portrait in his office surrounded by items referred to in his massive open online course (MOOC) that he offers on Disaster Preparedness. His laptop, playing one of the disaster readiness videos seen in his class material, sits on top of a box of MRE's. Pitt began offering the free Internet-based classes last year to people around the world. Thousands of people from all over the world took Beach’s course, and it is the first of Pitt's offerings to launch a second round beginning in late January.

More than 210,000 people signed up when the University of Pittsburgh offered its first five massive open online courses last year.

Though that was more than 11 times the number of students enrolled at the Oakland campus, there is little chance the broad-based, distance learning courses, known as MOOCs, will soon replace traditional learning, school officials said. There is a good chance, though, that these online courses can teach schools better ways to connect technology and education.

“I think for us at Pitt, we are really focused on using technology to enhance learning,” said Cynthia Golden, director of the Center for Instructional Development & Distance Education. “MOOCs are just one of the tools we have.”

The free, mass classes are designed to offer education online to anyone, anywhere without limits on class size.

On Jan. 27, Pitt started its second round of MOOCs by relaunching the disaster preparedness course offered in 2013. Two other courses from the first round are scheduled to be revisited this year: “A Look at Nuclear Science and Technology” in March and “Nutrition and Physical Activity for Health” in June.

“I learned a lot, and it was lots of work. But I loved doing it,” said Michael Beach, an assistant professor in Pitt's nursing school who teaches the disaster preparedness MOOC. “Students can do this any time. If they miss a week, they can jump back in.”

Beach's six-week course includes weekly videos and Power Point presentations, panel discussions, demonstrations and lively message board discussions. Much of the material was pulled from a for-credit, graduate-level course he teaches at Pitt.

MOOCs, however, are not for credit. Some — including his — offer a certificate to those who complete all of the work.

“You don't become an emergency planner by watching a MOOC,” Beach said. “But it does satisfy some personal educational interest.”

Pitt offers all its MOOCs through Coursera, a California-based education company founded in 2011. It offers courses through nearly 100 universities and institutions worldwide, ranging from Duke University and Johns Hopkins to the University of Tokyo and HEC Paris.

Penn State and West Virginia University also joined Coursera in 2013.

Carnegie Mellon University offers free online courses through its Open Learning Initiative, an effort started more than a decade ago.

MOOCs raise concerns, however, among university leaders questioning their future and whether they ultimately could create confusion about higher education degrees, according to annual reports by the Babson Survey Research Group.

In 2012, 26 percent of academic leaders responded that they felt MOOCs were not sustainable. That figure climbed to 39 percent in 2013.

Half of the nearly 3,000 academic leaders surveyed in 2012 thought MOOCs were important tools for universities to learn more about online teaching. That figure fell to 44 percent in 2013.

Golden said she has heard the criticism but thinks it still is too early to know what impact MOOCs will have.

“Personally, I don't see those fears coming to fruition,” she said. “The jury is still out on what kind of opportunities MOOCs will bring.”

Pitt is collaborating with other institutions to learn more about their MOOC experiences. Those schools include the University of North Carolina, Imperial College in London, Penn State and the University of Central Florida.

“MOOCs won't replace Pitt courses. That is not our intention,” Golden said. “But we will learn more about how to engage students through technology. MOOCs could help improve the campus classroom experience.

“It's very exciting.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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