UT System continues with MOOCs program despite low completion rates

Alex Wilts

It’s been a year since UT launched its first massive open online courses, or MOOCs, and, despite low completion rates, Steven Mintz, executive director of the UT System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, said they are part of building a learning platform for the future.

After looking at data from the University’s first eight MOOCs from the fall 2013 and spring 2014 semesters, Mintz said a total of about 281,000 people from all over the world enrolled in the courses. Of this number, only about 1-13 percent complete the MOOCs.

Mintz, who is also a history professor at the University, said there might be several reasons for the low completion rates, including the age of MOOC students and their motives for taking the free online courses.

“Your parents aren’t paying $10,000 for you to be sitting in a class, and they expect you to finish,” Mintz said. “It’s a very different experience. Also, most MOOC students are older. They often have degrees. They’re doing it either out of interest or because of professional credentialing. They’re not there to get a BA for the most part.”

In 2012, the UT System invested $5 million into edX, an online learning platform and provider of MOOCs and allocated an additional $5 million to be used for course development. Only $1.5 million of the additional funds have been used for course development. Founded in 2012, edX first offered MOOCs created by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before expanding to offer content from other universities.

Mintz said UT is increasing the spread of its international image, and its ability to compete with other top colleges by being one of the first universities to use MOOC technology.

“We play football in the big leagues, and, academically, we need to be in the big leagues,” Mintz said. “Faculty members of the caliber that UT-Austin has need to feel that they have exactly the same opportunities as a Princeton professor or a Harvard professor, and I want to make sure they have those opportunities.”

Engineering associate professor Michael Webber, who taught the “Energy 101” MOOC, said teaching these free courses is beneficial for the University because professors become better at teaching through learning how to internationalize their content and prepare it for a digital format.

“It forced me to think about how the course I taught works around the world,” Webber said.

While University students don’t directly benefit from MOOCs unless they take the online course, Mintz said materials are currently being developed for MOOCs that can be used in UT classrooms.

“Instead of having a textbook, the MOOC might be the textbook,” Mintz said. “A lot of money is being spent to create interactives, virtual laboratories, virtual reality environments and immersive learning experiences. Even if you never take a MOOC, some of the materials we have developed for the MOOC will be used in classes you will take.”

Mintz said there is also potential in the future for MOOCs to be offered for credit, but Harrison Keller, vice provost for higher education policy and research, said there are still problems to be worked out before this can happen.

“One of the problems with offering MOOCs for credit center around being able to authenticate who is taking the MOOC,” Keller said. “You don’t know if it’s the same person every time.”

In addition to making sure the person who registers for the MOOC is the same person taking their exams, Webber said MOOCs are bad at being able to see whether students have mastered the material.

“I don’t think MOOCs should be offered as course credit until assessment in general gets figured out,” Webber said. “This is a solvable problem. We’re just not there yet.”

Editor's note: Mintz's comments and the amount the UT System has dedicated to the program have been updated for accuracy.