The ad hoc task force assigned by Provost Dennis Assanis to investigate Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in December indicated at a town hall meeting held last Wednesday at the Wang Center that Stony Brook would benefit from instituting online classes.

MOOCs are online courses designed to be open to the public and support thousands of students. The most common form of these classes utilizes both recorded lectures and interactive content that checks student comprehension. MOOCs have been quickly adopted over the past six months by top-tier universities such as Princeton, Brown, Columbia and Duke, which all began offering courses last year.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are online classes that would be open to students and the public. Will Welch / The Statesman
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are online classes that would be open to students and the public. Will Welch / The Statesman

“Recent developments in technology for digital education and the rampant emergence of massive open online courses (MOOCs) are creating the perception of a game-changing, disruptive educational approach that has the potential to transform both access to education as well as the methods we use to teach our own students and the world,” Assanis said in a recent email to the Stony Brook Community.

Coursera, the largest MOOC platform, already has more than 2,661,000 learners enrolled in 222 courses.

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The committee cited several reasons for strong MOOC offerings at Stony Brook, including production resources, existing online course offerings, benefits for current students and publicity.

Because these courses are public by nature, there is a potential to raise the profile of the university with high-quality offerings.  “We think MOOCs can greatly enhance the Stony Brook brand,” Paul Bingham, chair of the branding subcommittee, said.

MOOCs also have the potential to help with pressure on general education courses with high retake rates. By allowing current students to fulfill course requirements online, demand for live versions of the courses can be reduced.

MOOC technology can also be used to fulfill other in-house functions, such as supplementing classes with interactive content and educating students about resources available on campus during orientation.

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Stony Brook already hosts several online courses through the School of Nursing and Biology Online. The School of Nursing runs classes through the SUNY Learning Network, which offers a variety of classes to students in the SUNY system. Biology Online, which is run by the department of biochemistry and cell biology, provides access to three undergraduate courses and two graduate courses for students enrolled at Stony Brook.

Given these offerings as well as resources like the Center for Communication Science, SBU TV, the Simons Center and Teaching, Learning and Technology, the task force strongly felt that Stony Brook has the capacity to support high quality online classes.

The task force is considering several different platforms for the production of courses, including edX, a non-profit project founded by MIT and Harvard; Coursera, currently the largest of available platforms; Udacity, a Stanford University project; and several learning management systems, including Moodle, Blackboard and Instructure.

Regardless of the system, the task force emphasized that free MOOCs would represent only a segment of Stony Brook’s development of online education resources, alongside courses developed for enrolled students and other content.

Several different models exist for awarding credit for online classes. Some courses allow students to purchase a certificate of completion after finishing a course, while others offer a paid certification test. It is also possible to allow students who pay tuition for the class to receive university credit, while others can take the class free of charge just for the benefit of learning. Selling textbooks and other educational materials are other means of generating revenue.

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The immediate goal the task force is recommending the development of a small number of courses to offer through Coursera, which will provide a low-cost and visible entry into the MOOC market. Over the long term, they are recommending the establishment of a committee to manage the development of MOOCs and other online content.

Stony Brook began looking into MOOCs in December, prior to SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher’s State of the University Address, when she announced a system wide initiative to begin publishing online classes. The task force is co-chaired by Eduardo Mendieta, chair of the philosophy department, and Wendy Tang, associate chair of the electrical and computer engineering department.

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