How the University of Minnesota sees MOOCs

For the masses?

In researching my piece on Massive Open Online Courses — known my the rather thuggish-sounding acronym of MOOCs — for this afternoon’s edition of All Things Considered, I spoke with the folks at the University of Minnesota.

Even though the College of St. Scholastica is apparently working on a course, MOOCs tend to be the domain of large private universities and public flagships. (Just check the list of Coursera’s partners here.)

The U does have the capacity to get into the biz, says Bob Rubinyi, director of distributed education. But judging from my chat with Provost Karen Hanson, they’re still testing the waters. She sounded interested in the potential of massive courses, but is still studying the matter.

Here are some issues I discussed with both:

Cost of production: Holding a MOOC costs tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the production quality, assessment techniques and staffing — and could go into the six figures. (Rubinyi said the bottom end of the range could be around $15,000 or so.) The leading MOOC universities, he said, have invested millions to get into them.

Reasons for MOOCs: Rubinyi says a lot of institutions see producing the courses as a way to “advance their brand” and get their name out. He said some institutions such as Harvard, MIT and Stanford have mentioned this as a possible recruiting tool for the best and brightest students.

Some are also seeing a potential money-maker, Rubinyi said. Colleges could charge students fees for certification after they take courses, of course — or charge other institutions who want to reuse the MOOC content.

But he called all of that “speculative.”

(Hanson also told me it’s a bit unclear what the MOOC business model will be.)

Still, he said there also might be a little “herd mentality” at this point:

“Some institutions are figuring, ‘We’d better get on this, because it looks like it’s big, and we have to be a player here.’”

But money and marketing aside, Hanson gave another reason the U is interested in MOOCs: the U’s mission of community outreach and public engagement.

She told me:

“It would allow us to reach every corner of the state.”

But she said the U hasn’t identified anyone to take the first step.

“We haven’t gotten a proposal from a faculty member, and we haven’t exactly encouraged that yet. We’re still in the process of consolidating the services that we want to provide to faculty who are interested in all forms of digital enhancement of pedagogy.”

That said, she told me:

“If we have a faculty member who is really interested in producing a MOOC, and we think they have the materials there, we might put resources into that.”

STEM dominance: Science, technology, engineering and math courses dominate MOOC offerings at the moment. Rubinyi says it’s because STEM work can be assessed …

… “in an objective manner with more closed-ended, automatically graded tests — versus, say, English classes or history classes, where there might be a requirement for a lot more writing and exposition. Because there aren’t necessarily methods of grading those as easily as technical, or science or math or engineering knowledge.”

He did mention Coursera’s attempt to “crowdsource” assignments by having students assess each other’s papers:

“It’s the belief by some of the Coursera founders that there’s some level of reliability in peer assessment. But the jury is still out on that.”

Neither Rubinyi nor Hanson pooh-poohed MOOCs.

My radio piece already gives Hanson’s view. Rubinyi told me:

“I don’t think most of us see them at this point as totally revolutionizing education.”