Lecture on Online Education

Colgate’s first Online Education Symposium talk took place on September 18 and was live-streamed through the Colgate edX site. Fiona Hollands, the associate director at the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, addressed the capacity of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in reshaping higher education in the 21st Century. 

Hosted by the Benton Scholars, the event drew both an on-campus and an online audience for a discussion about MOOCs and the future of academe.

“Online learning has grown dramatically over the past ten years. In 2012-2013, almost a third of college students were taking at least one online course,” Hollands said. “15 percent of institutions are offering or planning to offer MOOCs, but why are people offering MOOCs? Clearly for any decision-makers, these are important questions.”

Hollands then shared the findings from her recent study. Titled MOOCs: Expectations and Reality, the study looked at institutional goals and cost-effectiveness of developing and delivering online courses.

Among the interviewed institutions, 65 percent of them were primarily using online courses as a way to extend reach for institutions and access for learners, 41 percent want to build and maintain brand, while an equal number of them are trying to increase revenues or decrease costs.

In assessing whether these goals have been achieved, Hollands found that people are generally enjoying greater access to these opportunities.

“But what tends to be disappointing is that many already have a good education. So we are not necessarily reaching people who do not have access,” Hollands said. 

Hollands noted that revenues from MOOCs are not materializing as expected and that students are more likely to drop out from online classes than those offered in a classroom setting.

“One amusing thing for me was that people are more confident about the potential of cost-reduction if they haven’t tried MOOC,” Hollands said. “About five percent of learners actually complete the course, and only one percent of learners are paying for the verified certificate, so the institutions don’t get much.”

However, she acknowledged that the commitment required for MOOCs is less than attending classes.

Audiences who have taken online courses shared personal anecdotes about how MOOCs might not be as effective as expected.

“What about hands-on experiments for sciences? It would be really hard to direct experiments without a professor looking over your shoulder,” first-year Kara Jaramillo said.

For some, interaction with peers and professors in the

physical classroom is invaluable.

“I think it is not just an important part for learning, but for growing as an individual,” sophomore Sid Wadhera said.

Regarding the future of MOOCs, Hollands felt that the scale would become less massive. 

“We are always assuming that the quality is already there. However, we never realize that it is sacrificed for scale. In the distance, big data could be used for adaptive learning,” she remarked.

Zach Weaver, a sophomore who attended the lecture, raised questions about the practical value of online education. 

“While online education could be a great way for spurring interest at an introductory level, most colleges do not accept credits for that right now. And I do not know how well-valued the job market is taking online education as opposed to on-campus

education,” Weaver said.

Hollands believes that in the future, institutions will establish accreditation systems and find ways to confer credentials of economic value, such as providing employer-recognized credentials, but Holland said institutions not be offering online classes for free indefinitely

Dan Benton, a trustee of Colgate University and the chair of the Faculty and Academic Affairs Committee, was also present at the talk. He was enthusiastic about introducing more technology to Colgate. 

“Technology is not going to take away what we have in class, but will help us learn smarter and better,” Benton said. 

Colgate faculty and staff are continuously exploring innovative ways to enhance learning. Last spring, Colgate launched its edX platform with Hamilton College. And last semester, Associate Professor of Geology Karen Harpp offered an online course called “Advent of the Atomic Bomb” through the edX platform. Harpp will be offering the course again next spring.

“We’re not opening the course to the public, but limiting it to Colgate alumni to enhance their interactions with students in the class being offered on campus. We can call it a ‘Selective Private Online Course,’ or a ‘SPOC,’” Harpp said.

Associate Dean for Undergraduate Scholars Programs Peter Tschirhart felt it was exciting to have informed and engaging discussion on online education. 

“It was interesting to learn how little we all know about MOOCs, how the data we have is really quite limited and to hear how much room remains for continued

research,” Tschirhart said.