By GRACE BALLENGER ’17
Wellesley will expand its online course offerings through edX, an educational collaboration, next year. Wellesley professors will teach two massive online courses (MOOCs) in sociology and English next fall.
Wellesley joined edX last fall and offers MOOCs through this program, which are available globally and often attract an average of 33,000 students, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The first course Wellesley offered was an anthropology course entitled “Introduction to Human Evolution” taught by Professor Adam Van Arsdale. This semester, Wellesley offered “Was Alexander Great? The Life, Leadership, and Legacies of History’s Greatest Warrior,” a history course taught by Professor Guy Rogers.
Rogers said that he initially wanted to teach the course so that he could bring the story of Alexander to a wider audience. The content of the course includes video lectures, quizzes, source readings and many other materials.
Professor Yu Jin Ko of the English department will teach “Shakespeare: On the Page and in Performance” next year. Professor Smitha Radhakrishnan will also teach a course, “Introduction to Global Sociology,” which focuses on the global garment industry in addition to the basics of sociology.
Radhakrishnan’s course will consist of lecture material filmed at various locations, including Logan International Airport and the Lowell Historical Museum, case studies, readings, documentaries and numerous interviews with experts who have conducted research on the global garment industry.
Her course is loosely based on an introductory sociology class that she teaches at Wellesley, but diverges from her regular sociology class in a number of ways.
“In this particular iteration of the course, because of the format, this is not necessarily going to be a full overview of the discipline of sociology, it’s more [about] getting people to think about global sociology, a specific subfield,” Radhakrishnan said.
Wellesley’s foray into online courses was motivated by the College’s desire to increase access to a Wellesley education. However, the effectiveness of MOOCs in achieving this goal has been questioned. In particular, most MOOC students already have B.A.s and many even have Ph.D.s.
Rogers stated that although his course is open to the general public, his initial surveys of the participants found that 37 percent of students had an M.A. or Ph.D., and 76 percent of his students had a B.A. or B.S.
“This was kind of like a graduate seminar, but then we also had high school students in the course,” Rogers said.
Radhakrishnan, on the other hand, speculates that online courses may be attracting mainly students with college degrees because the courses are still in their initial stages of development.
“The ideals of what it’s supposed to be don’t necessarily match up with the practical aspect of it, but also there’s just so much happening now that it’s hard to tell where it’s all going to go,” Radhakrishnan said.
The Chronicle of Higher Education also reported very low pass rates for MOOCs when they surveyed 103 professors who have taught MOOCs from the early stages of their development until now and found that overall the pass rates for MOOCs was 7.5 percent.
Van Arsdale found that of the 19,200 students that initially enrolled in his MOOC last semester, 12,000 were active within the first week of the course and 1,003 students passed the course.
However, Van Arsdale also believes that the number of students who pass the course should not be the only measure of their success.
“Much of the focus on drop-out rates and completion rates for MOOCs, especially for an institution like Wellesley College, is misguided. Who is getting engaged and how they are getting engaged with course materials is probably of more value than simply asking how many,” Van Arsdale said.
Rogers does not have the final data from his course yet and therefore does not know how many of the 17,500 students who signed up for his course passed. However, he emphasizes that there are many ways in which students may have participated in the course that would not have necessarily led to a passing grade.
“It’s possible to do the course in a lot of different ways. Some people are just watching videos, some are taking weekly quizzes, some are doing all the source reading,” Rogers said.
Sunnia Ye ’17 took an online physics course, and agrees that the benefits of the course do not depend solely on passing the course.
“I watched the lectures, but didn’t do the assignments because I didn’t have the time. It’s possible to do only some of the work of an online course and still get benefits out of it; your learning isn’t defined by whether or not you have obtained a course certificate.” Ye said.
The educational community is still attempting to come to a consensus about how students who pass MOOCs should be compensated. Some professors hope that universities, including prestigious ones, will ultimately give transfer credits for MOOCs, allowing students who have completed multiple online courses to finish their degrees more quickly and lower their tuition fees.
As the program exists currently, Radhakrishnan is against giving credit for online courses, in part because she thinks it will foster unhealthy competition between universities. She also thinks that there are inherent limitations to the online format.
“You’re not getting what my students get in Sociology 108 here get, where there’s so much back and forth and so much discussion. You’re building so many skills about how to formulate an idea and how to put it out there and how to think on the fly,” Radhakrishnan said. “There’s no way that you can get that on this platform. It’s not possible.”
Rogers believes that there are important skills that can be learned online but is still not sure how that should translate into a credit system.
“There are educational goals that you can fulfill through this medium. Students can do source criticism, write source critiques and express their ideas in discussions with classmates,” Rogers said.
Rogers will also vouch for the academic rigor of his course.
“I wanted to make this the most intellectually rigorous online course possible, and I’m confident I succeeded, if you look at the sheer number of exams. The number and rigor of the exams far exceeds the number and rigor of anything that I teach here. The reason I decided to give so many exams of so many different kinds is that I wanted to show that on online history course could be just as intellectually rigorous as a traditional brick and mortar course,” Rogers said.
The academic council has currently ruled that academic credit will not be given for MOOCs at Wellesley.