CU finding immense value in MOOCs

Free online courses benefit internal, external audiences

Nearly a year after introducing a partnership between the university and online technology platform Coursera, the benefits of offering massive open online courses (MOOCs) have begun to take shape – make that many shapes.

“We’re seeing value in a number of ways,” said Deborah Keyek-Franssen, associate vice president for digital education and engagement. “First, MOOCs can be a great outreach and a great branding opportunity for CU. Second, they allow us to undertake research and scholarship in the area of teaching and learning.”

Citizen scholars

Courses taught as MOOCs can be used to take advantage of the large numbers of students enrolling. For example, the “Deciphering Secrets: Unlocking the Manuscripts of Medieval Spain” MOOC, being taught by professor Roger Martinez on the Colorado Springs campus, enlists participants to be involved in the research.

“The MOOC is important in that it incorporates the public as citizen scholars,” Martinez said. “Students collaborating alongside of our international team of Spanish, Swiss and American scholars are crucial to our effort to understand Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious co-existence during the Spanish Middle Ages.”

Students will explore the history, families and geography of the Spanish city of Plasencia, from the eighth to the 14th centuries; they will learn about the region and foundation of the Christian city and diocese, and will ultimately be an integral part of transcribing documents that had never before been deciphered. The class starts June 15.

“The final part of the course will teach students how to read earlier forms of handwriting (paleography),” Martinez said. “Initially, students will work with early 19th century cathedral manuscripts, but as they progress, they will be challenged to transcribe late medieval (late 14th and early 15th century) manuscripts.”

Plasencia, located in the rocky and oak-covered Spanish province of the Extremadura, was granted “papal bull” – a decree issued by the Catholic Church – in 1221 by Pope Honorius III, which established it as a diocese under the rule of King Ferdinand III.

“One of the innovations of the class is that it does not require students to understand the Spanish language, although any proficiency with it is highly useful,” Martinez said. “How is this possible? Well, while all readings and lectures are in English, thus ensuring students learn about this fascinating history, their ability to understand Spanish is not nearly as important as their innate human ability to recognize patterns.

“If a student can recognize the letters of the alphabet, for example what an ‘a’ looks like, then they can transcribe medieval documents. In essence, we are using the power of crowdsourcing to transcribe an 800-page manuscript in just three weeks – it is a task that would take an accomplished scholar many years to complete.”

Spreading the health

MOOCs offered across CU have the potential to benefit the health and welfare of people around the world. The Global Health Responder MOOC, to be offered starting fall 2014, will serve as an introductory course for laypeople.

“We are targeting early to mid-career professionals with little to no prior medical experience wishing to gain skills to participate in global health ventures,” said Jay Lemery, assistant professor of emergency medicine at the CU School of Medicine (SOM). “Anyone completing the course will have an excellent overview of global health issues and an understanding of self-empowering skillsets for global health engagement.”

The popular Mini Med School will be offered as a MOOC starting this fall on the Canvas platform. One audience that founders Helen Macfarlane, director of educational technology in the SOM, and JJ Cohen, professor of immunology and medicine in the SOM, hope to capture is young people.

“We’d love to be able to bombard every school district in Colorado,” Cohen said. “With this audience, we’d influence them away from bad behavior. We want to make it crystal clear why smoking is bad; what the rising epidemic of obesity is about.”

Learning from the learners

Another advantage to MOOCs is the opportunity to improve the classroom experience, Keyek-Franssen said. Faculty in the physics department on the Boulder campus recently compared face-to-face learning and MOOCs to see what worked, what didn’t and why in each of these different modalities.

“Studying MOOCs allows the opportunity to improve face-to-face teaching because we’re discovering more and more about learning through this online modality,” Keyek-Franssen said, “and that new knowledge can be transferred to the face-to-face classroom.”

The courses are also a valuable recruitment tool, she said. “The power electronics department on the Boulder campus saw a huge jump in the number of graduate applications, and people were mentioning the MOOC in their applications,” she said.

“That’s fantastic,” Keyek-Franssen said. “We want to recruit excellent students into our graduate programs and MOOCs can be a teaser course for departments to gain the interest of top quality applicants.”