A year into its partnership with MOOC provider Coursera, Vanderbilt has already wrapped up three MOOCs and has another three in the pipeline.
"My role is to work with faculty to think through this project and help the campus have healthy conversation about online learning and what it means," said Derek Bruff, director of Vanderbilt's Center for Teaching.
The three noncredit courses -- in the schools of nursing, business and computer science -- attracted 65,000, 47,000, and 32,000 students, respectively.
[ For more on MOOCs, read Will MOOCs Massively Disrupt Higher Education? ]
Underscoring the Nashville, Tenn., school's commitment to online education was the creation in July of the Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning. One hope is that the institute will analyze the big data coming from the MOOC program -- such as the survey results completed by many of the 30,000 students who made it to the end of one of the online courses -- and use it to improve teaching concepts in its brick-and-mortar classrooms.
The students, many of them already in their chosen professions, bring a lot to the table, Bruff said. "They've vocal and self-motivated, and they bring resources, ideas and feedback about course design," he said.
On the other hand, designing courses for such a diverse mix of students adds to the complexity of making effective MOOCs, he said. "Making a course run online isn't easy. You have to rethink its structure and goals," he says.
Starting last summer, Bruff began recruiting Vanderbilt faculty, ultimately lining up five teachers who had ultimate responsibility for creating the courses.
In all cases, Bruff said, "our teachers had to do a lot of upfront work," including recording hours of lecture video. Finding teachers who would shine in this environment was essential, he added.
Moreover, with only one exception, the courses are new, either compressed versions of a current course or compilations of material from two or more courses.
Vanderbilt reports its MOOC completion rate for the first three classes was 13.5%, about double the industry average.
Offering its MOOCs for no credit -- although the nursing students could opt to pay for Coursera's Signature Track to receive a PDF verifying they'd finished the course -- goes to the larger point that that Vanderbilt does not see MOOCs as course replacements.
"Lot of debate comes down to thinking of them as course replacements," he said. "We don't offer credit, and that's in part by design." Positioning its MOOCs as "intros, teasers, special products" also minimizes the threat to current faculty, he says.
"These are educational outreach," Bruff said, putting them in the context of Vanderbilt's existing programs for high schoolers and lifelong learners.
MOOCs pose plenty of questions, Bruff said. "Can we crowdsource, use peer-to-peer learning, use automated feedback? Can the student experience be as good using some of these technologies? I think the jury is still out."
Indeed, Bruff voices a worry heard elsewhere that some cash-strapped school administrators, looking only at MOOCs as a way to teach at scale and achieve cost savings, will miss asking these important questions.
At the same time, MOOCs are still missing pieces, notably in the area of social learning and peer assessment, Bruff said. "There's plenty of room for innovation there."