The Hilltop at your fingertips: Online learning at Georgetown

October 10, 2013

Last week, Georgetown joined the ranks of Harvard and MIT in offering a range of new digital learning alternatives by launching its first Massive Open Online Course. The MOOC, entitled “Globalization’s Winners and Losers,” taught by SFS Professor Theodore Moran, will be available at no charge to anyone with an internet connection via the edX online platform.

In addition to Professor Moran’s course and various other MOOCs the University has numerous other electronic learning projects in the works. The NHS recently transitioned four out of its five master’s degree programs online, with some in-person training sessions. The MSB also recently introduced an online Master of Science in Finance, set to launch this January. And for the undergraduate curriculum, the Department of Philosophy plans to pilot a hybrid online and in-person bioethics course this spring or next fall. The University also hopes to have its first entirely online for-credit undergraduate course ready for summer 2014.

Through these projects, Georgetown is rapidly moving into the technological arena by making online learning a substantial part of the undergraduate experience. While this puts Georgetown on par with its tech-savvy peers and presents students with a cheaper, more diverse course selection, faculty members on the Hilltop and elsewhere are raising concerns about the pedagogical effectiveness of online courses, in addition to the broader implications for higher education.

In one of his first undertakings as Provost, Robert Groves began introducing technology into Georgetown’s curriculum with the Initiative on Technology-Enhanced Learning, which launched last December. ITEL has allocated $8 million to improving online learning and classroom technology over three years.

“[This initiative] came together, by Georgetown standards, fairly quickly last fall with the decision to sign up with edX,” said David Edelstein, associate professor in the SFS. Edelstein was part of the faculty working group that helped advise ITEL, which is allocating a third of its funds to MOOC development under the edX platform.

When asked why Georgetown decided to explore electronic learning options, Edelstein said, “I think the highest levels of the University thought it was important that Georgetown explore what its place in this new landscape [of higher education] might be.”

According to Vice Provost for Education Randall Bass, one of ITEL’s primary goals in reshaping on-campus education is “flipping” the traditional classroom. Under this model, students are assigned “passive learning” for homework, like watching the video of a lecture, and then partake in active learning through collaborative projects or problem sets in class. The upcoming hybrid bioethics course will experiment with this teaching method and will potentially include parts of the “Introduction to Bioethics” MOOC through the Kennedy Institute of Ethics.

Though professors and administrators have expressed interest in entirely re-thinking how they teach traditional material through ideas such as the “flipped classroom,” some faculty members have pointed out that there is scant evidence on the pedagogical effectiveness of these methods because they are so new. Nevertheless, according to research done by consultant group Ithaka, students who took a hybrid statistics course “paid no price” in terms of passing rates, final exam scores, and standardized test scores.

The decisions of other universities to join the MOOC consortia—including edX, Udacity, and Coursera—in the past two years prompted Georgetown’s decision to look into such initiatives as MOOCs, hybrid classes, and other online options, according to Bass.

“There is … a lot of change and disruption in online learning going on,” Bass said. “We knew we wanted to both accelerate what it was we were doing on campus and we knew we wanted to do something related to joining one of the consortia.”

Though the MOOCs trend among peer universities made creating such an initiative like ITEL a “matter of urgency,” Bass said the University had been looking for a comprehensive project that would also transform learning on campus.

Richard Boyd, associate professor of Government and director of the Social and Political Thought certificate program, worries that universities like Georgetown are rushing to adapt online models for education for the wrong reasons.

“Some of the discussions I have seem to assume that this is inevitable…[referencing] the notion that we as a university don’t want to fall behind other universities somehow, or even the idea that somehow we want to democratize education,” Boyd said. “Those all may be important things, but I think you have to make a pedagogical case for this.” According to Boyd, this case is not yet being adequately made at Georgetown.

On the other hand, the language used by many administrators and faculty members involved in these initiatives characterizes Georgetown’s experimentation with electronic learning as a research venture that allows the University to explore innovative teaching and learning methodologies.

Professor Maggie Little, who helped create and teach Georgetown’s bioethics MOOC as the director of the KIE, believes these types of disruptive technologies compel educators to take another look at how they teach. “An unstated premise is that the current way we deliver education in the aggregate is actually decent; [but] let’s not assume that’s correct just because it’s the way we do things now,” she said. “One thing that’s really good about [MOOCs] is [that] it’s asking us for empirical evidence on the effectiveness of learning.”

At the end of the spectrum of technological integration, Georgetown aspires to the possibility of an undergraduate course taught entirely online. In particular, it hopes to launch a course taught entirely online for summer 2014. According to Bass, Georgetown students transfer over $2 million worth of credits from summer courses taken at other colleges, so the expansion to online summer courses would help fill that revenue gap.

“They’ll be set at all the same standards as the courses taught during the year,” Bass said. In terms of credit-hours and cost, the summer class would be equivalent to an on-campus course.

Edelstein says that the decision to make the online courses cost the same as on-campus courses reflects basic economics: “If they’re going to give the same credit for [an online course], they have to charge the same. Otherwise everyone is going to start taking the online version … because it is cheaper.”

As of now, the University does not have plans to offer an entirely online course during the school year, though Bass sees this as an inevitable move. “I think doing the summer pilot is the beginning of experimentation with online learning in the undergrad space,” he said.

Although there is discomfort regarding Georgetown’s interest in merging education with technology among some faculty, most professors and administrators agree that the current model of education is unsustainable: Higher education is becoming increasingly expensive without a corresponding increase in efficiency.

The types of online courses Georgetown is exploring, however, could help students financially by helping them complete credits in a more flexible manner, which, in turn, could allow them to graduate earlier, according to Edelstein.

Online courses could also save universities money. For example, Georgetown’s online summer course is estimated to cost roughly $25,000 in start-up expenses, though it will not cost that much every time the course is offered. “In terms of running it, it’s probably cheaper [than a traditional class],” Bass said. “Once it’s up, it’s probably cheaper [than] all the things that go with the classroom.”

Nevertheless, he did not seem worried that such moves could affect the job market or pay for professors. “I think our biggest hope is that we are figuring out ways to free faculty to do the things that they are best at,” he said.

Edelstein, on the other hand, expressed a higher level of concern about the possible effects of an increasingly electronic classroom on the already limited national academic job market, which is under the strain of potentially detrimental practices, including the hiring of part-time adjunct professors instead of full-time, tenure-track professors. “I would say it’s very controversial in my world, because the implication of this is: [employing a] MOOC is a lot cheaper than hiring a new faculty member.”

While fully online courses may begin to be incorporated into the University’s curriculum, at least at Georgetown, MOOCs won’t be a part of standard undergraduate education any time soon. To Bass, these have never been seen as stand-alone courses. For the time being, they remain a means of exploring online education.

While Georgetown students will not benefit from them in the near future, over the course of this academic year the University will introduce three MOOCs from its most renowned departments. Aside from the SFS “Globalization” course that went live just over a week ago, a genomics course put together by GU’s medical school will join the KIE’s bioethics MOOC for its launch on the edX platform in the spring.

Moreover, the bioethics team plans to have three topic-specific modules, or shorter MOOCs, into which users can enroll according to their interests. The next course the SFS is preparing to launch will focus on terrorism and counterterrorism. Since Georgetown’s contract with edX lasts three years and covers six to ten courses, according to Bass, the University has a few more courses it hopes to create over the next few years.

Despite its short-term goals for its partnership with edX, given the experimental nature of these initiatives Georgetown has not yet made a definitive plan for making these courses financially sustainable. Each of these early MOOCs is expected to cost at least $100,000, but, since each course is different and no precise cost projections can be made, Bass said each MOOC could cost up to twice that sum.

“I anticipate [that] within the next year we’ll see revenue, or cost recovery from a few different sources. Charging [enrolled students] for certificates of completion is one possibility,” said Bass. Alternatively, he speculated that Georgetown could also offer small private closed courses­­—more intensive, selective versions of MOOCs for which the University could charge tuition.

Bass also articulated that the University is beginning conversations on a third option: licensing content. Licensing would allow the University to “sell” its MOOCs for use on other higher education campuses worldwide.

The licensing of online courses appears to be having the largest impact on transforming traditional models of higher education. As the debate sparked by a group of professors at San José State University shows, as MOOCs and other technological advances pick up speed, academia is beginning to earnestly consider what the shift to electronic methods of learning is having on the way it operates.

Last April, San José State’s president announced that the school would experiment with multiple edX MOOC courses for undergraduates after seeing positive results with incorporating lectures from MIT’s “Circuits & Electronics” course into one of San José State’s engineering classes. But when San José State encouraged its philosophy professors to teach Harvard’s nationally acclaimed “Justice” course, the entire department refused, according to the Chronicle
of Higher Education

In an open letter to Harvard professor Michael Sandel, who teaches “Justice,” the department expressed that it did not want to contribute to a move to “replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.”

While the professors made clear that they are not opposed to hybrid or partially online courses, they were distressed at the lack of control inherent in purchasing pre-packaged licensed courses. Although this use of a valuable tool has the potential to save tightly-budgeted universities large sums, professors were apprehensive of homogenizing education in terms defined by elite schools.

“We fear that two classes of universities will be created: one, well-funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of video-taped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available,” the letter reads.

They concluded the letter saying that those who “care about public education” should not generate products that undermine it.

After being approached by MOOC platform Coursera to license his course, Mitchell Duneier, a Princeton professor the Chronicle called a “MOOC star,” has chosen not to participate in these online courses—at least for the time being. He cites reasons similar to those expressed by San José State’s philosophy department.

“I think it’s an excuse for state legislatures to cut funding to state universities,” Duneier told the Chronicle. “I’m really uncomfortable being part of a movement that’s going to get its revenue in that way.”

Duneier also expressed doubts about whether using his course in such a way could even be pedagogically effective.

Amherst College has also turned down offers from edX to create a MOOC program on philosophical grounds. The College voted against joining edX since, according to the school, the format runs contrary to its commitment to “learning through colloquy” in addition to worries that certain uses of the courses could jeopardize “more-vulnerable” colleges and possibly Amherst itself, according to another Chronicle article. There is also a worry that MOOCs could “enable the centralization” of education and possibly lead to “the obsolescence of the B.A. degree.”

“There’s a huge worry for many that the online stuff, even if it starts hybrid, will crowd out face-to-face teaching because it’s so much cheaper to deliver,” Professor Little said about similar fears at Georgetown.

Though Little believes the MOOC format is not necessarily going to increase the gap between “haves and have-nots” in education, she acknowledged that “because of the [online] efficiencies of scale and … the limited budgets [of universities and students], you really could get fewer people getting an on-campus experience.”

“But for a place like Georgetown, I don’t worry about that at all, because if we offer a watered-down on-campus experience, we don’t exist,” Little said. “So our whole … comparative advantage … or our mission will be about developing on-campus experiences. That’s very much the way the President, the Provost, and the Board of Directors are thinking about it.”

All things considered, Bass and Little acknowledge that Georgetown plans to move ahead of this technological curve to define itself along the lines of what will, in the future, be considered “elite”: having a functioning, physical campus and face-to-face intellectual community students are willing to pay for.

Correction: Randall Bass is Vice Provost for Education, not associate provost and director of GU’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship.


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What a great article. It is so well written in both its delivery and content. It is the type of journalism that makes history, – a new step for Georgetown. Thank you for letting us parents know .