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Can Teaching 90,000 Students Online Make Colleges Better?

This week not just elementary and high school students, but also college students head back to class. This year universities in Houston are expanding their role in one of the hottest topics in higher education. KUHF Education Reporter Laura has more as part of our special back to school coverage.



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Rice University professors start one of their most popular classes in an unusual way.

“Ok are you ready? Rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock — Shoot!”

That’s Scott Rixner, Joe Warren and other Rice instructors.

They’re playing a game from the TV show the Big Bang Theory. And, yes, they have the T-shirts to match.

“I’m scissors, You’re scissors, Oh you’re scissors — No!”

This is a class on a computer programming language called Python.

It’s a massive open online course or MOOC.

Just how massive? Try 90,000 students enrolling in one session.

Rixner says the size made them really think about their teaching.

“If we’re going to put ourselves in front of that many people, it’s going to have to be really good. So we spent a lot more time preparing, a lot more than our on campus classes.  And then it’s terrifying because you’re on the stage and everyone can see how well you’re doing or how poorly doing.”

Rixner says the experience has made them better teachers.

“When you have to think about, ‘How am I going to present this material to 100,000 people who don’t get to ask me a question can understand it,’ I do a better job of presenting to 100 people on campus.”

That’s just one of the benefits some educators see with this new trend.

Another benefit is giving students around the world access to high quality education at a low cost.

Most of these classes are free.

This year Rice University is expanding its number of massive open online classes. A new series is targeted to K-12 teachers in science, technology, engineering and math.

The University of Houston will also offer MOOCs in the spring, starting with Advanced Placement prep classes for high school students and teachers.

“MOOCs have the potential to disrupt higher education, but how it really changes it nobody really knows. If I knew, I could go and spin up some venture capital and make a lot of money doing that,” says Warren with Rice.

But there are issues with this trend like if students should get college credit and how will universities and providers make money.

Like others, the University of Houston sees the classes as a source of potential new revenue.

Associate provost Jeff Morgan says for now UH won’t offer credit or charge, but that could change.

“We might consider this MOOC platform for for-pay courses. You can’t have a revenue stream without for-pay courses. So I don’t think we’ll be offering free MOOCs for credit.”

There’s also the issue of how many students actually complete the course.

Take the Python class from Rice.

Only about 5 percent of those 90,000 students finished.

Ratna Sarkar was one. She’s in her early 50s and studied computer science as an undergraduate in India. She was curious about this new way to learn.

“I absolutely loved it. I learned a lot. I was sort of skeptical because I was raised in the era when I did everything in a classroom and turned in homework and things.”

Sarkar says she liked the short video lectures and online student forum.

But she later tried a different MOOC.

It was so boring she stopped after two weeks.


More Information on MOOCs

Watch the first lesson of the course in Python computer programming from Rice University here.

Rice University to Offer More Massive Online Courses

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This story was informed by sources in KUHF’s Public Insight Network ®. To become a news source for KUHF, go to HPM Public Insight Network.