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What About MOOCs?

by Staff Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Forbes has proclaimed Massive Open Online Courses, a.k.a. MOOCs, a “$1 Trillion Opportunity.” Universities, academic entrepreneurs, and Silicon Valley types alike are charging ahead with investments and experiments in a search for the winning technology and business models.

MOOCs enable the uncoupling of key functions in education: lecturing, testing, credentialing, and social interaction. Moving some or all of these functions online opens the door to new ways of delivering learning experiences to masses of students all at once. MOOCs open the door for the Wisconsin School of Business to rethink the use of live classroom interactions and the deployment of professors and lecturers. The school is proceeding carefully, paying special attention to ensure the use of MOOCs build off of the premium, often irreplaceable experiences offered in the classroom.

For years, universities have been experimenting with communication technologies to rethink the delivery of lectures. In the fall of 2011, Stanford University took a popular computer science course on artificial intelligence and made it available online for free to the world. More than 160,000 students in 190 countries enrolled. This marked a turning point in the evolution of communication technology at the service of education.

Since that headline-grabbing class, MOOCs have quickly found themselves at the center of the public debate about the future of higher education. The media seems to relish all the start-up and venture capital activity aimed at disrupting the traditional university. Some of this disruption is coming directly from universities. One of the professors from the Stanford computer science course went on to found Udacity, a platform that now hosts two dozen MOOCs. Two other Stanford professors founded Coursera, and have already attracted more than 2 million enrollments in the first eight months. Harvard and MIT are promoting their own joint venture, edX.

The business model for MOOCs in higher education is still in experimental stages, and many questions are yet to be answered: who will provide the steady cash flow to grow and sustain these new ventures? How will student learning be assessed and certified? Can self-organizing online communities provide the same learning outcomes and enrichment that students gain from live interactions? And, if MOOCs prove to be successful, what will be the future of the classroom—and campus—experience?

The online technology offers an opportunity for the school to build its brand and extend its reach to more students. Research faculty at the cutting edge of their field and outstanding lecturers with deep professional expertise teach every day in Grainger Hall. Why restrict their reach to the classroom size?

The Wisconsin School of Business is delighted to announce its first foray into MOOCs with Professor Randy Wright, the Ray Zemon Professor of Liquid Assets. As part of a partnership the University of Wisconsin-Madison has signed with Coursera, Professor Wright will be among five professors at UW-Madison to open his classroom to the world.

The course, titled “Markets with Frictions,” will address the imperfections of financial markets
and their relevance to the design and optimization of monetary policy and banking regulation. It will build on Professor Wright’s extensive and highly regarded research contributions in the field of monetary economics.

“I am delighted we are able to provide one of our star researchers a global stage to share his insights with the world,” Dean François
Ortalo-Magné said. “Economists all know about his great research. Now, everyone will have access to his great teaching.”

As the school positions itself to share the insights of its researchers with the world, it is also leveraging the benefits of MOOCs to expand the teaching of business on campus and in the state. With support from Innovation Fund investors, the school plans to create online offerings for the existing General Business 310 and 311 courses in the fall of 2014.

Currently a year-long sequence designed to equip non-business majors with business fundamentals, GB310 and 311 include modules on economics, finance, accounting, marketing, supply chain management, entrepreneurship, and ethics. Current course demand from the UW-Madison campus far exceeds the current classroom capacity of 250 seats. Enrollment in the online courses will be open first to non-business majors on campus and then potentially to students from all UW colleges.

Students in Madison and around the state will be able to complement content in the online modules with discussion sections on their respective campuses. Counterintuitively, the massive online approach to teaching delivery permits an increase in customization of the learning experience. For example, a group of nutritional science students taking the course might form their own discussion section, giving special attention to issues related to their field of interest.

“MOOCs create an opportunity for us to explore new ways to deliver premium learning experiences,” commented Dean Ortalo-Magné. “I look forward to building on MOOC technology to share the contributions of our research faculty with the world and further enhance the Wisconsin brand.”