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MOOC Madness

When the New York Times is good, it is really good, and it has been all over the online higher ed story like white on rice. Today it has yet another illuminating piece on how massive open online courses (MOOCs) are transforming higher-ed.

Professors face a host of challenges in adapting to the new platform: devising teaching methods appropriate for a more impersonal setting; assessing how well students are learning; and structuring courses to engage so many students of varying ages and backgrounds. Perhaps most importantly, professors need to build a grading system that can process thousands of assignments and tests from that very diverse student body. It’s a process of trial and error:

And while there is a belief that students learn from assessing their classmates’ work, no one knows how well the process works. The concept is simple: each student must score the work of five classmates to get their own score, the average of what their peers gave them. But the reality is trickier. What if students do not take scoring seriously? What if the rubric is unclear? Do peer assessments match the scores the professor would have given?

To find some answers, Professor Duneier and his assistants have painstakingly graded thousands of midterms and finals, comparing their scores with the peer graders’. When he saw the first batch of midterms, he realized that some students had provided unexpected responses that would not have earned many points on his planned rubric, despite their clearly understanding the material. So he tweaked the rubric, allowing for extra “makeup” points on some questions. But the computer tallied the regular and makeup points together, giving some students more total points than the exam was worth.

Second-tier colleges face much greater hurdles in trying to compete with the nation’s top schools:

Top universities with courses like Professor Duneier’s stand to gain, both in prestige and in their ability to refine their pedagogy; few seem worried about diluting their brand-name appeal. The risks are greater for lesser colleges, which may be tempted to drop some of their own introductory courses — and some professors who teach them — and substitute cheaper online instruction from big-name professors.

By now, most of the academic establishment has come to terms with the fact that online courses are the way of the future. It’s now up to the innovators to work out the kinks and over time — perhaps over much less time than many complacent academics expect — the face of American higher education will change more radically than at any time since the aftermath of World War Two.

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