David Archer is teaching a version of his global warming class online. (Photography by Lloyd DeGrane)

Class dispersed

UChicago dips a toe into long-distance learning with its first two online course offerings.

The University of Chicago announced June 4 that it would begin experimenting with online education, offering free, not-for-credit courses through the website Coursera. Massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, have multiplied over the past few years as schools such as Harvard, MIT, and Yale have begun offering them.

To investigate UChicago’s options, provost Thomas F. Rosenbaum appointed two committees to explore online courses. Among the conclusions in the subsequent report the committees produced is that online courses would allow the University to increase its presence and engage with students and scholars at other institutions. “It’s a way of bringing the University of Chicago to a larger audience who might otherwise not be able to have access to us,” says Roy E. Weiss, deputy provost for research and the Rabbi Esformes professor of medicine and pediatrics. Weiss chairs an oversight committee appointed to review faculty proposals for online courses.

The committees’ report notes another potential advantage of online education. “Part of the hope of this experiment is that online courses will allow faculty to experiment with new ways of teaching,” says Weiss. The report cites the idea of flipping the classroom—meaning students watch lectures outside of class and use class time for questions and discussion. Coursera and EdX, another online education site, provide student feedback to professors in the form of enrollment data and end-of-course evaluations, and they offer interaction through message boards, allowing professors to analyze the quality of their pedagogical experiments.

Interest among faculty appears high. In a Chronicle of Higher Education survey, 79 percent of faculty who have taught MOOCs deemed them “worth the hype.” David Archer, professor of geophysical sciences, and John ­Cochrane, Chicago Booth’s AQR Capital Management distinguished service professor of finance, volunteered to lead courses that go live this fall on Coursera. Archer will teach a version of his global warming class, and Cochrane will teach an asset pricing theory course originally designed for doctoral students.

Echoing Weiss, Cochrane says, “I hope to use the online technology to improve the instructional value of my on-campus course, as well as to provide a unique resource for people who want an exposure to academic finance.” For Archer, “It’s a question of outreach. I’m very motivated by the issue of climate change.”

But before faculty like Archer and Cochrane can reach new audiences, there are challenges. MOOCs are often plagued by high attrition rates, with thousands of participants signing up but only a small percentage completing the course. And they require a significant time commitment to teach. The Chronicle survey found that, for 55 percent of respondents, teaching a MOOC diverted attention from other academic duties.

To assist with these challenges, Paul Bergen, the executive director of academic and scholarly technology services, leads a team helping faculty members adapt their courses for an online audience. “Faculty should be prepared to invest a large amount of time in producing and teaching their courses,” Bergen says, estimating up to 200 hours for course design and production alone. “There is no way around that.” The process involves writing an online lesson plan, recording lectures on video, and creating digital teaching materials, which will be handled in part by Bergen’s team. Teaching assistants are also needed to monitor discussions and upload material.

In supporting online courses, the provost’s committees emphasized that strong engagement with faculty is part of what distinguishes a University of Chicago education. This will be a main focus and challenge as UChicago joins one of the fastest growing trends in higher education.