UNC system explores free online courses

This story was republished from the Daily Tar Heel with permission.  The original can be viewed here.

Some University students take courses with up to 400 peers — but students enrolled in “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue” have 180,000 classmates.

The course, taught by UNC-CH philosophy professor Ram Neta and Duke University ethics professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, is one of many offered by Coursera, a company which offers free online courses to students all around the world.

The course is offered through Duke University, but UNC-CH might join the rivalry by offering its own free online courses next year.

The UNC system’s new strategic plan, which will be voted on next month, proposes that universities deliver one of the courses — known as MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses — every year for the next five years. The plan aims to maximize efficiencies and boost degree attainment at universities.

Neta and Sinnott-Armstrong said MOOCs provide students with expanded access to learning.

“It’s a way of providing college-level education to students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it around the world,” Neta said.

The course enrolled 180,000 students from Laos to the United Kingdom, but only 13,000 students are still completing assignments, Sinnott-Armstrong said.

But the knowledge they’re making available to thousands of students is still important, said Margaret O’Hara, director of e-learning for the UNC system.

“It’s any time, anywhere learning for anyone,” O’Hara said.

UNC-CH will also participate in Semester Online, a consortium of top-tier universities that will offer online, for-credit programs beginning next semester.

Sinnott-Armstrong said the online format appealed to him because there are no time constraints.

“You can devote the exact amount of time that the topic deserves and cut out the rambling,” he said.

Each lecture is in video format and is anywhere between three and 30 minutes long, Sinnott-Armstrong said.

The format also enables students to address personal learning barriers, such as language, he added.

But these courses are not without drawbacks.

Sinnott-Armstrong and Neta’s course does not offer college credit. And Carol Tresolini, UNC-CH vice provost for academic initiatives, said if the University offers MOOCs, it might not provide college credit either.

Yet other universities, such as Georgia State University, are exploring granting credit to students who have taken MOOCs at other schools.

In addition, the large scale of the courses causes a lack of direct engagement with professors, Neta said.

But Neta said he and Sinnott-Armstrong have learned a lot about using this online platform and teaching the material to a wide audience. Both professors will use feedback from students to improve next year’s course.

Neta added that the UNC system should offer the courses if they could increase state residents’ access to college education.

“Those people deserve a chance to foster those talents,” Neta said.

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