Faculty Meeting Discusses MOOC/edX Committee Report
Issue   |   Wed, 04/03/2013 - 02:14

On April 2, the faculty met to approve new courses, discuss a report from the Faculty Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)/edX Committee and question Johannes Heinlein, Head of Strategic Partnerships and Collaborations at edX, and to view and discuss a presentation by the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) regarding class capping at the College and its effect on students’ access to the open curriculum.

After a brief introduction to the meeting by Gregory Call, Dean of the Faculty, the faculty voted to approve 21 new courses.
Jack Cheney, member of the ad hoc MOOC/edX committee and Professor of Geology, quickly summarized the MOOC/edX committee’s report that faculty had received the week before. The committee, which was formed after a Dec. 28 faculty meeting, put together an informational report addressing questions of faculty concerning MOOCs and edX. The report went through an overview of edX and the programs they offer, the pros and cons of edX and MOOCs, the evolution of MOOCs and the implications of MOOCs on higher education. The report also discussed three ‘two million dollar questions’ concerning whether the college should instead use the $2 million edX would cost to create its own MOOCs, invest in innovative pedagogies to benefit on-campus students only or to just use Moodle instead. The committee also went through the concerns about whether or not to join MOOCs and edX now rather than later.

The committee also went in-depth into the issue of certificates, finding that under a self-service model with edX, the College would not have to issue certificates of completion with their courses.

The committee then turned the discussion over to Heinlein, who offered to answer informational questions from the committee and faculty.

Heinlein first addressed the committee’s question of as to why the College should join edX now, and why MIT decided to form edX when they were already giving course material in other forms. Heinlein said that schools like MIT and Harvard have decided to create MOOCs because technology has evolved greatly since the start of open courseware, allowing professors to integrate interactive components into their courses via programs like edX. Furthermore, he stated that these schools look at this opportunity as a great experiment, allowing wider access to quality education through MOOCs while also using the interactive technology to reinvent on-campus education through experimentation, with the technology acting as a compliment to the work faculty members do, not a replacement.

Heinlein then addressed the committees concerns about the way edX values certificates. He said that they are important to edX because learners request them, stating that learners want to have something at the end of the course that they can show, stating that it drives them to engage more in the course. Furthermore, he said that edX is finding that certificates drive faculty members' engagement; when professors know that learners who pass the course will receive a certificate, they produce courses of higher quality.

Heinlein then answered questions from faculty regarding pilot machine-learning technology for automated paper grading, the potential benefits of joining the program now rather than in future years, the contributions the College faculty could make to the evolving technology and the reasons edX requires each consortium institution to produce at least four MOOCs over two years rather than simply using the technology to supplement classroom material.

Though not every faculty member got their questions answered, they were encouraged to send questions via email to the MOOC/edX Committee, who would get responses from Heinlein before the coming final vote. The faculty will be voting about whether or not to join edX on April 16.

The faculty then moved to a presentation by the CEP regarding the threat posed to student access to an open curriculum by course caps.

Rick Lopez, chair of the committee and Professor of History, gave the presentation, stating that class capping is not a problem per se, however the problems begin to arise when there is not a balance of small, medium and large courses. Lopez stated that, currently, if students were spread out over all courses, the average class would have 18.7 students. However, over the last four years the course sections with caps have increased from 45 percent to 60 percent of classes, with the largest increase in caps being classes capped at 20 or fewer students, particularly 15 or under. Furthermore, Lopez stated that the trend is even more pronounced in new courses, with 50 percent of the new courses capped at 15 or less students. Lopez also stated that 68 percent of capped courses end up about two students under the cap, largely due to last minute drops during add/drop period. Lopez warned that if the trends continue, they will become unsustainable, squeezing student out of smaller courses into larger or uncapped courses. Lopez raised the issue that currently there are too many courses under the 18.7 student average, with students currently experiencing a typical class size of 29.1. Lopez also presented data from a survey taken in Spring 2013, which found that 44 percent of students report begin unable to take a course they wanted to take in the last semester (with 20 percent having three or more courses they wanted to take but were unable to), with 43 percent of those students stating they were unable to take the course due to a time conflict with another course and 39 percent saying they were unable to take the course because it was full.

Students on the CEP then presented their point of view of the issue, with Molly Scott ’14, Adam Gerchick ’13 and Matt deButts ’14 emphasizing the importance of this issue to students and suggesting that even small increase to cap sizes, such as five students, would help alleviate the issue.

Lopez emphasized that course caps is a faculty issue that could be solved within the faculty, suggesting that professors be mindful of the 18.7 student focal point and try to add more students in a course rather than less, creating more medium–sized courses. Lopez also put forth the recommendations that departments examine policies internally and decide what caps are appropriate for courses and course levels and that they work to offer a balance of small, medium and large courses. He also suggested that the faculty as a whole needs to consider how decisions impact student’s access to open curriculum.

Faculty discussed the issue, bringing up the issues of capping courses as a defensive move to prevent their courses from being filled with ‘refugees’ from other capped courses, the fact that caps help professors plan out their coursework, the balance between wanting to maintain small classes for students to have the professor-attentive ‘Amherst experience,’ the issues with the add/drop period and preregistration and how it rewards students who are more aggressive and perhaps disobedient, the need to continue to work on the issues of course crowding during certain time slots and the need for more funding to hire more faculty members.

The faculty ended the meeting promising to return to the issue in the future, while taking into consideration the data presented by the CEP when deciding future class caps.

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