Penn State shows impressive early enrollment for MOOC courses

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State’s launch into the world of MOOCs (massive online open courses) last month was a successful one, with a total of more than 50,000 students enrolling in the five courses since their Feb. 21 debut on leading MOOC website Coursera.

Cole Camplese, senior director for Teaching and Learning with Technology, said he is pleased with enrollment numbers so far.

“This is what’s so exciting for me,” he observed. “The opportunity for our faculty to connect with potentially tens of thousands of students, not just in the U.S. but across the globe, is just amazing.”

The number of students currently enrolled in MOOCs is staggering. Coursera alone now boasts 2.7 million users from 196 different countries, with 1.4 million course enrollments each month. Sixty-one other universities offer MOOCs on Coursera and the website features courses from 17 different countries in five languages. 

Penn State is currently offering five MOOCs through Coursera, including courses on art introduction, geospatial science, creativity and innovation, the future of energy and the dynamics of epidemics.

A month after the launch, each course already has thousands of enrollments. One of the highest-enrolling classes is Introduction to Art: Concepts & Techniques, with 17,800 students currently enrolled. Anna Divinsky, lead faculty member of the Digital Arts Certificate Program, is instructing the course.

Divinsky’s MOOC will focus on the fundamental theories and techniques of visual arts, and students will be expected to conduct research, complete writing assignments and create their own original works of art. Divinsky said that unlike a traditional class setting, MOOC students will have to be self-directed and learn to rely on each other for feedback instead of continual guidance from an instructor.

“The students will have the opportunity to share their creative process and receive suggestions from others enrolled,” she explained. “The ongoing discussion will demonstrate all the unique and diverse perspectives of the people enrolled.”

The mutual sharing of artwork and constructive critique will be the most important element of the class, according to Divinsky — since MOOCs, with more quantifiable subjects, like mathematics or computer programming, can rely on quizzes and tests to evaluate the students’ progress — but a subjective topic, like art, requires more personal assessments.

“I am a big proponent of free and open education,” she said. “Even though I won't be able to personally appraise each student’s work, as I might in a typical class, I’m thrilled so many students can be exposed to art and share their creative energy on a global level.”

Another course showing impressive early enrollment is Creativity, Innovation and Change, which currently has 18,060 students registered.

Kathryn Jablokow, associate professor of mechanical engineering and engineering design and one of the instructors for the course, said this MOOC is about helping students discover and develop their own personal brand of creativity.

“Creativity is innate in all people but it is also tremendously diverse, and most people aren’t aware of that diversity,” Jablokow said. “It’s important for people to realize that they are creative and to learn processes and techniques that help them bring that creativity to light.”

Designing a MOOC that will be used by thousands of students requires course designers to think outside the box. Elements used in a traditional class — blackboards, textbooks and grades, among other things — aren’t feasible on a massive level. Jack V. Matson, emeritus professor of environmental engineering and course team member, said he’s had to put the principles of his course to work while designing the class.

“Developing this course has enabled us to use the same tools of creativity and innovation that we’ll be teaching our students,” Matson said. “It’s really given us the opportunity to practice what we preach.”

Darrell Velegol, professor of chemical engineering (and another of the course’s team members), said one of the aspects he was most looking forward to was breaking free of the traditional class setting.

“Sometimes the constraints of a traditional classroom structure can limit what we can accomplish and how many students we can educate,” Velegol explained. “MOOCs bring in a whole new group of students that have as much ability to re-create this world as anyone, and we’re thrilled to be part of that.”

Experts point out, with websites like Coursera gaining steam every day, it’s difficult to define what the MOOC movement will mean for universities like Penn State or the development of higher education — as  technology trends evolve over time. Camplese believes the growing MOOC phenomenon will help the Penn State community discover new ways to connect with learners and provide access to the University.

“This has reignited our passion for innovation in the design and delivery of learning,” Camplese said. “It has proven what an innovative and energetic community Penn State truly is.”

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Last Updated April 27, 2013