The University of Oklahoma (OU) is embracing massively open online courses (MOOCs) on its own terms -- creating them under its own brand, rather than joining the stampede to providers like Coursera or edX. CIO Loretta Early said partnering with a local startup provided a way to merge online course strategy with the university's economic development mission while letting OU influence the platform design.
The fruit of that partnership is Janux, a MOOC platform introduced in October with the startup NextThought. "It was a leadership decision that we'd do better to work with a local startup, with a physical presence on our research campus, than another company."
One of OU's innovations is making the courses available for free to the general public through Janux while also making them available to enrolled students for credit through its Ozone student portal or for a fee to those who want to take the online courses for credit. Janux launched with six courses, including "Understanding the Global Community," "Law and Justice," "General Chemistry," and "Social Statistics." By the spring of 2014, OU plans to have 20 courses online, which it maintains is the most any university has offered in its first year of doing so. The scale of the venture remains relatively small, though -- about 5,000 signups, including international students.
The platform's design encourages students to share notes and collaborate. A sidebar on every page, for every course module, lets students see whether their contacts are online, start a chat, or annotate the page (for example, to highlight a point that will be on the test). "We're really looking at social learning and incorporating that into open courseware and open content."
OU won a 2013 InformationWeek 500 Business Innovation Award for its work with open educational resources, such as free OpenStax College textbooks. Even before Janux, it had published video of many of its courses on iTunes University. And Early's leadership in higher education goes beyond OU. This year, she chaired the conference program for Educause, a professional development organization for higher education IT leaders. The conference used the umbrella term "connected learning" to refer to all the new forms of online and social learning, including MOOCs.
"We're recognizing that this isn't a fad," Early said. "We have to challenge our institutions to figure out what the implications are and what will be the policy changes institutions will need to grapple with."
After years of heads-down work on backend financial and student data management systems, IT leaders are challenged to "bring value forward" and make data and applications more visible to students, parents, and faculty members. One example is applying analytics to gradebook data, "so we reap or harvest value out of that information that can be useful to the student." For example, as the university homes in on the factors that lead to student success, advisers should be better equipped to intervene with students at risk of failing or dropping out.
The biggest challenge for Early and other higher ed tech leaders is that upheaval and opportunity are occurring at a time of new state and federal mandates, "many of them unfunded." Her job involves complying with new demands without new resources. For example, to stay compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, OU must ensure that course videos are closed-captioned. Automated transcription doesn't always work (particularly in courses with specialized vocabularies), so that captioning requires expensive and time-consuming manual transcription. Another example is a new federal requirement for additional IT security and monitoring for any Department of Defense research program, regardless of classification.
"There are few problems more people, time, and money can't solve," Early said, "yet those are things that are very constrained today."
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