MOOCs No Slam Dunk For Virginia Commonwealth University

Rather than jump headfirst into online education, VCU created a task force, surveyed students and faculty and wrote a long-range plan.
 8 MOOCs Transforming Education
8 MOOCs Transforming Education
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The right way to enter into online education, according to Virginia Commonwealth University, is carefully.

Earlier this year, a VCU task force delivered a report to the university's provost, outlining an online education strategy, which will be fleshed out in the coming months and years, according to Jonathan Becker, interim director of Online Academic Programs and associate professor of Educational Leadership.

A social scientist by training, Becker was the point person for developing what's known as the S.A.G.E. report. The acronym breaks down as:

-- S for support, particularly of currently enrolled students.

-- A for access. That's about "figuring out which programs we think have a market beyond our brick-and-mortar campus," Becker said. The emphasis here is on credit-bearing and certificate programs, such as continuing education courses for teachers. "We're looking at ones that will generate revenue," Becker said, adding that although conceptualizing revenue-making programs is an implicit goal, it hasn't been a pressure point.

-- G for growth. New programs the university could offer but doesn't today.

-- E for exploration. Becker said that translates into "thinking big and being innovative."

[ For more on MOOCs, read Will MOOCs Massively Disrupt Higher Education? ]

The VCU strategic report, ordered by the university's provost in January and delivered earlier this year, focuses little on any particular delivery platform or technology.

"MOOCs came up, and we may put edX or Google's code [the open source Course Builder] on a server," in order to test these systems," Becker said. Becker himself has experience teaching online. For two years, he taught a class in educational technology to postgraduate students pursuing a certification in educational administration. He chose to cobble those classes together using Google Apps, instead of using the Blackboard LMS.

Asked about MOOCs, Becker said there had been "interest but no pressure" from VCU students and faculty.

"Our current face-to-face students like the flexibility [a MOOC] would give them," Becker said. "But they're savvy consumers, some have had good experiences and some have had bad experiences with online education."

Becker and the S.A.G.E. task group know the specific requests and concerns of students and faculty because it took the time to survey both groups earlier this year. In fact, this is his top recommendation for institutions considering an online education initiative.

"Start off with a deep and wide conversation with all the constituencies, collect data and see where it takes you," Becker said.

Asked what MOOC vendors bring to the table, Becker says it's their claim of using big data to better understand learners, learner networks and how the two interact.

Interestingly, this interest maps to the original goals of the first MOOC, the 2008 course created by Canadians George Siemens and Stephen Downes, Becker said.

"That's more consistent with what the Internet was designed for, and I hope we get back to that idea," Becker said. "Learning and the Web are inherently social, and I hope we get back to that."