By Steve Kolowich
So far the universities partnering with edX and Coursera on massive open online courses (MOOCs) have focused on the ideal of lowering the barriers to elite courses.
But edX’s newest partner, the University of Texas System, has more pragmatic ambitions. It wants to use them to get more students through college more quickly and for less money.
“We’re trying to move the MOOC model,” said Steve Mintz, executive director of the Texas system’s Institute for Transformational Learning, in an interview.
Cost and completion issues have turned the state of Texas into a proving ground for unconventional ideas such as outsourced online competency-based learning and the $10,000 bachelor’s degree. Now the University of Texas will enter MOOCs into the equation with the hope that it will make a Texas degree less expensive for some students.
The goal is to develop MOOCs that can stand up to the scrutiny of the normal faculty approval processes at the system’s various campus, then award credit to students who pass them.
The Texas system believes making certain “bridge” courses — low-level courses that typically count toward multiple degree pathways — available as MOOCs will make it less likely that students will be locked out of those courses on their own campuses, said Mintz, who will lead the implementation of the partnership agreement.
“Some students tell us that they are closed out of classes because those classes are over-enrolled or aren’t being offered that semester,” he said.
Another way MOOCs could give students a cheaper path to a Texas degree is that some universities in the system may elect to charge below market for the credits earned through massive courses, which will theoretically cost less to deliver. Access to the course would be free and open to everyone, but the universities would charge student enrolled at Texas for the opportunity to redeem their learning for credit.
“It’s going to be up to the campuses how much to charge,” said Mintz. “And it’s conceivable that these classes would have a reduced tuition rate.”
Universities in the Texas system may award credit for MOOCs from edX’s other partners, which currently include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley. “I’m reasonably sure that at least some of the campuses will take that option, based on conversations,” he said.
Texas will have the opportunity to make money by awarding non-credit certificates to MOOC participants who are not enrolled in the system. A university might award a Texas-branded certificate in exchange for a “modest fee” and worthy scores on a “meaningful, proctored exam.” (edX recently signed a deal with Pearson VUE to hold such exams at Pearson’s many testing centers.)
As part of the agreement with edX, which is a nonprofit, Texas will keep 100 percent of the profits it makes from its own MOOCs, said Mintz. The agreement also reportedly calls for a $5 million investment from the Texas system.
Texas faculty may worry that awarding credit for über-scalable MOOCs could be the first step toward eliminating local versions of those courses — and faculty jobs with them. “We have no intention of doing that,” said Mintz.
Professors who are inclined to distrust the university’s reassurances may take comfort in the fact that MOOCs so far have seen dropout rates that most institutions would find unacceptable. Out of 155,000 registrants for edX’s inaugural course in electrical engineering, only 7,000 earned a passing grade on the final exam.
But for Anant Agarwal, the president of edX, poor retention in the early courses, which were built to be particularly challenging, does not mean a MOOC aimed at less well-prepared students is doomed to fail.
“That is one of the particular exciting things about the University of Texas coming on board,” said Agarwal in an interview on Monday in Boston, where he had just given the keynote talk at a meeting of the New England Board of Higher Education.
“It is the largest and most diverse system and has a large number of first-generation [students],” he said. “And they and we all see online learning as a way of increasing the success rate. And for that the [low-level, high-enrollment] courses are going to be key.”
And edX is not done with completion-oriented partnerships. Agarwal says edX has received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop MOOCs aimed at community college students.
“We’ll be announcing community college partners soon,” he said. “We’ve narrowed it down and have got the final agreements in place.”
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