When some University of Maryland, College Park students return to class for the spring semester, they could be attending lectures, taking quizzes and completing group projects without leaving their dorm rooms.
The university is participating in a pilot program that combines massive open online courses with traditional classroom instruction. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently awarded $1.4 million to nonprofit research group Ithaka S+R to study how the state's university system could incorporate the increasingly popular online courses
"There are two things we're seeking: new strategies that will improve learning outcomes and lower costs," said University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan. "We can't have one without the other."
The online courses, commonly referred to as MOOCs, have soared in popularity over the past two years. Unlike the online hybrid courses that universities have offered for years, the courses are designed to be taught solely online. They feature video lectures from professors at prominent universities interspersed with quizzes, assignments and discussions.
Perhaps what makes the courses most popular is the price — most are free. However, with a few exceptions, most universities do not award students credit for completing the courses.
Students who participate in the pilot will still pay tuition and receive credit.
Researchers from the New York-based Ithaka S+R will examine over the next 18 months how professors can bolster their classes with material from the online courses. Two College Park statistics classes will be supplemented with the online lectures in the spring, and courses will be rolled out at other public campuses in the summer and fall, Kirwan said.
Deanna Marcum, Ithaka S+R's director, said her group chose to use the Gates money to study Maryland's university system because state education leaders had already been working on redesigning courses to incorporate more online material and showed "a general receptivity to trying new things."
The university system has revised recently about 40 courses to stress online components, Kirwan said.
"The notion," he said, "is that the classroom is not used for lecture time, but used as time for active learning. Students are working on material, and the professor and graduate students and advanced undergraduate students are walking around the room and helping them work through the material."
Researchers have met with officials at seven public universities across the state so far, Marcum said, including University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Towson University and Coppin State University.
The consultants are seeking professors who are willing to experiment with adding the online content to their classes, such as having students watch a lecture from Coursera — which, along with edX and Udacity, is one of most popular purveyors of such classes — and complete an online assignment before gathering for a class discussion or lab.
"The test is … can the content be used effectively by a faculty member on the ground?" said Marcum. "Can these courses, which were designed for a direct consumer market, be used in institutions to some good effect? Can they lower costs, free up faculty to do other things or broaden the exposure to students in some way?"
One concern is the perception that students, who are paying ever-increasing tuition costs, will be getting less for their money. The Ithaka S+R researchers will be examining the costs and benefits to students of the courses. Professors who have experimented with similar models at other universities say the free materials can be used as a jumping-off point for classwork, much like an assigned reading, Marcum said.
While courses with "right and wrong answers" such as mathematics or computer science seem to lend themselves to the online work most naturally, humanities classes can also be enhanced by online content.
"I took the Coursera course on modern and contemporary poetry and I was really impressed by how effective that course was," said Marcum.
Martha Nell Smith, chair of College Park's university senate, said her colleagues are intrigued by the possibilities of the online courses — although some wonder if the trend is overhyped.
Smith said she is excited by possibilities for the democratization of higher education presented by the online courses, since they remove financial barriers for those who are otherwise unable to enroll in college.
Smith, an English professor, would like to create a MOOC about her specialty, the poetry of Emily Dickinson. She believes that online courses have as much to offer students in the humanities as those in science or engineering.
"You can have much more extensive discussions sometimes online," Smith said of the hybrid courses she has taught. "My students all turn in their papers online. When they're performing for their fellow students as well as for me, they do better."
But Smith cautioned that MOOCs are not a panacea for the challenges faced by higher-education institutions.
"Some people think that MOOCs are going to be big cost-savers or produce lots of revenue," she said. "But someone has to pay for the software and for the professor's time. Labor is just going to be redistributed."