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UC San Diego Professors Test Waters of Massive, Open Online Learning

Evening Edition

Above: Elite universities have been experimenting with massive, open, online courses, or MOOCs, for a couple of years now. UC San Diego is joining them.

Aired 10/31/13 on KPBS News.

Elite universities have been experimenting with massive, open, online courses, or MOOCs, for a couple of years now. UC San Diego is joining them.

On a spring day the seats in a UC San Diego auditorium were mostly empty. Stephen Mayfield has been teaching his Introduction to Biofuels class for three years. The seats, he said, really only fill up on test days.

But his students aren’t exactly skipping class. Most just listen to the lectures online, ask questions over email or during office hours, he said.

Mayfield thinks moving most of the class online this way is pretty exciting — but not because it makes his students’ schedules more flexible.

“Not one of them, prior to my class, had ever considered energy or the implications it had in their life," he said. "And most of them had no clue where energy comes from. They assume that electricity comes out of an outlet in the wall and that gasoline just shows up at the station — they had no idea. So it occurred to me that if our students here at UC San Diego don’t understand this — I think they’re pretty sophisticated students — then what does that say about the rest of the world.”

Some of Mayfield’s lectures are already on YouTube and now he’s trying something more ambitious.

“I think all of us in education have been thinking about these massive online open courses," he said. "We knew that there was a lot of power to do this and when we saw there was an opportunity to get a grant from Google to actually pay for the studio time and pay for the lectures, we jumped at it.”

He’s turning his course on sustainable energy into a combination of video lectures and 1-on-1 question and answer sessions with other UCSD experts. Eventually he expects to have about 50 hours of video to break up and put online as a massive, open, online course — a MOOC.

Elite universities have been experimenting with MOOCs for a couple of years now. Harvard and MIT each have nearly 20 active MOOCs on a nonprofit course platform the universities co-founded called edX. UC Berkeley has 11 classes on the site. When Mayfield’s class is complete, it’ll be UC San Diego’s fifth foray into this new world. The school's current courses are available through another site, the for-profit Coursera.

“We want to be, on the one hand, innovative, aggressive, push forward. On the other hand we want to be careful” said Jeffery Elman, Social Sciences Dean at UC San Diego and part of a group at the university exploring how technology can improve education on the campus.

“We’ve become very aware that our potential learners are not only students on campuses, but all over the world," he said. "So here you had this medium that opened up education everywhere. Access was really exciting, it was free. Y’know, we all dream of universal, free higher education. It’s been very hard to do that.”

People all over the world signed up to take a free online course from other UCSD professors. This one is about bioinformatics. The class hasn’t officially started but some of the thousands of students are already posting on class discussion boards in Spanish, Russian and Arabic. Craig Ricker is taking the class from his apartment in UCSD graduate student housing.

“I got my bachelor’s degree from UCSD in human bio. I graduated in 2012 and since then I’ve been working in the dermatology department of the UCSD med school,” he said.

He has already already learned a lot about computer programming through other free online classes.

“I’m taking it to become a better applicant for grad school and it’s also helping me in my actual job, analyzing the data that we’re collecting,” he said.

Just having completed a free, online class makes Ricker unusual – by some estimates more than 90 percent of the people who enroll in a MOOC don’t stick with it to the end. That’s part of the reason very few MOOCs get you actual university credit. But the courses' proponents don't see the low completion rate as a problem.

“I think having a very low barrier to learning something about an area, that’s valuable," said UCSD's Elman. "There are students who do want to get credit. There the challenge is: how do you evaluate the credit? If the experience is just online it’s a challenge and I don’t think we have figured that out yet.”

But it is a little frustrating for a student like Ricker.

“You do learn skills and that’s great," he said. "But when it comes to professional, and especially academic goals, you do need some sort of piece of paper that says — hey, I completed this, I learned this. And that’s the down side of learning on your own and through the online classes — you can’t demonstrate that.”

Back in the studio, Stephen Mayfield’s plan is that his sustainable energy course will be more than a free general resource for those curious about the basics of sustainable energy.

“MOOCs are very nice in that you get a very big audience, but to actually make it a course requires quite a bit more than that.“

Mayfield’s MOOC will have two tracks — one with lectures that give a broad overview of the topics. The other will require students to register and pay for more in-depth work.

“Which means interactive, grades, projects, discussion sections, the whole bit.”

It won’t be free, but it will open up classes taught by prestigious researchers at UCSD to anyone in the world with an internet connection.

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