depending on the length of the course and the
production model. McGill spent about $200,000
developing each MOOC, the upper end of the
typical range. It adapted its MOOCs from pre-existing courses, completely redesigning them as
online learning experiences. The funds come from
philanthropic sources and not the university’s
operating budget, she noted.
The University of Alberta spent nine months
developing a MOOC on paleontology that it offered in September 2013. In addition to instructors
and course developers, the staff included graphic
designers, editors, make-up artists, even an acting coach. To better understand how MOOCs
impact student learning, U of A launched three
versions of the same online course: a free MOOC
version, known as Dino 101 offered through
Coursera; Paleo 200, offered as an online credit
course for U of A students; and Paleo 201, a
blended-learning course for U of A students that
included class time and field work. All three used
the same online content but the U of A students
were required to write proctored exams, and
enrolment for Paleo 201 was capped at 50 students.
U of A researchers were happily surprised by
students’ high completion rates in the Paleo 200
and 201 courses, 98 percent and 100 percent
respectively. Researchers aren’t sure why but
Glen Loppnow, associate dean, learning and
innovation in the faculty of science, noticed that
several students who were on academic probation and had enrolled in Paleo 200 achieved
grades in that course that were higher than in
their other classes. They told him they liked the
flexibility. They could “binge watch” as many of
the lectures as they liked whenever they wished.
For some, that meant outside of work hours. For
some with health issues, it meant at a time when
their medical treatment allowed.
“This is a hugely important lesson for us as
a university,” said Dr. Loppnow. “Sometimes
some flexibility in student offerings really promotes student success.” U of A is offering the
paleontology course again this fall in its three
iterations as well as a course on video games.
The completion rate for U of A’s free MOOC
version of the course was 17 percent, about three
times the rate of most MOOCs but still far below
the rate for on-campus courses. But people who
enrol in MOOCs tend to be motivated by different
goals than on-campus students, said Jonathan
Schaeffer, U of A’s dean of science. Many participants sign up just to browse the course content.
Some students watch the lectures but don’t intend
to complete the course requirements. Moreover,
MOOC participants tend to be older, have work
experience, and be geographically dispersed all
over the world. Still, observers say the lessons
gleaned from studying what motivates and
engages these students who face few pressures
to complete a course could have important implications for campus students who do.
U of A is capitalizing on what it has learned
about MOOCs to launch a MOOC production
company, which it believes is a first. This past
summer, Dr. Schaeffer and Dr. Loppnow, along
with Jennifer Chesney, U of A’s associate vice-president, university digital strategy, set up a nonprofit spin-off called Onlea (for online learning).
Onlea collaborates with instructors to produce
online and blended courses for MOOC platforms
and learning management systems. The company
doesn’t compete with Coursera, edX, Udacity and
other MOOC providers.
“We are all about the product,” said Dr.
Chesney. “We aspire to be the Pixar of public
education products.” Onlea’s clients include an
international mix of academic institutions and
can pinpoint exactly what confuses them. “We’ve
seen the level of discourse go up,” he said.
Peer-to-peer discussions that take place on
MOOC online forums are invaluable, say some
instructors. “We’ve been very impressed with the
level of engagement that students have had and
the level of discussion,” said Laura Winer, interim
director of teaching and learning services at
McGill University. So much so that McGill plans
to launch an online, for-credit version of a MOOC
on food chemistry exclusively for McGill students.
A bonus is that enrolment in online courses doesn’t
have to be capped.
McGill’s MOOCs include the one on food
chemistry, offered last January, and a second one
on natural disasters. Later this year, McGill plans
to launch a MOOC by renowned management
expert Henry Mintzberg and another on sports
medicine. McGill, like UBC, offers its MOOCs
on the edX platform. The research component in
edX allows McGill to trade experiences and ideas
with universities across North America and
Europe, Dr. Winer said.
MOOC production costs vary significantly,