University of Iowa to offer first 'massive open online course'

Courses are free, come with no application requirements and can draw a huge crowd

About 31,000 University of Iowa students start back to class Tuesday, but this semester – for the first time – two UI professors are teaching pupils who have not been admitted and are not paying tuition.

In fact, some of the new “students” have never been to campus, Iowa, or even the United States.

“In the changed landscape of academia, where people everywhere have access to the web, it seemed like a good idea to find a way to share our immense academic resources with as broad an audience around the world as we can,” said Christopher Merrill, professor and director of the UI International Writing Program.

Merrill is partnering with English professor and Walt Whitman scholar Ed Folsom to offer the UI’s first Massive Open Online Courses, which are commonly referred to as MOOCs and are partially funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The courses – now offered through many revered U.S. institutions, including Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology – are available online to anyone who wants to enroll. They are free, come with no application requirements and can draw a huge crowd – one Stanford MOOC drew an enrollment of more than 100,000 students.

The first UI MOOC, which will last six weeks beginning Feb. 17, is called “Every Atom: Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself” and will guide students on an examination of the epic poem through video lectures, live breakout sessions and online discussions.

Merrill said the UI’s International Writing Program is planning to offer a second six-week MOOC in May on the practice of creative writing called, “How Writers Write: Talks on Craft and Commitment.” That course will be guided by a curated collection of video-taped interviews with 40-some authors who have visited the writing program at Iowa, Merrill said.

The authors will talk about some aspect of their work, and Merrill will then contextualize the talks through lecture materials, online discussions and live question-and-answer sessions.

The UI courses are ungraded and students do not get credit, Merrill said. So far, about 400 people have signed up for the first UI MOOC, which Merrill and Folsom started preparing for last summer.

Working into the fall, they filmed 12 recorded lectures, plus another 52 commentaries that will be available to students as additional resources. So far, about 400 people have signed up for the Whitman MOOC.

“What we have imagined is that this is the start of a larger investment in MOOCs and online materials,” Merrill said.

But critics of the free online courses question whether the cost in time and staff resources is worth it. They also have expressed concern about possible unintended consequences related to university enrollment in the future.

Some universities – like Iowa State University – have been cautious about jumping on the MOOC bandwagon, but ISU officials say they are looking at how the massive online courses “might serve our institutional mission.”

Ralph Napolitano, ISU associate director for online education, said the institution has several plans for MOOCs in the future, but none are ready to announce.

“As with all forms of online learning and other uses of technology in academic programming,” Napolitano said, “our aim is to enrich the learning experience and provide the highest quality of education to all of our students, wherever and however we reach them.”

Merrill said he sees the massive online courses as part of the UI’s “educational mission.”

“I see them as providing a great possibility of adding to and supplementing teaching on campus and introducing people everywhere to things that are important to our academic mission,” he said.

The Whitman course, Merrill said, will provide students with insight into what it means to be American.

“He is such an important poet, and it is such an important poem,” he said. “It is so central to who we are as a people.”

Professor Folsom is regarded as a preeminent scholar on Whitman, and Merrill said his willingness to educate a global audience for free not only benefits students but the UI, Iowa and the United States. Courses like the one on Whitman increase Iowa’s name recognition and further the university’s goal of creating a global exchange of ideas.

“We have a number of different programs on campus, and if we choose wisely, we have a chance of enhancing what it is that we do around the globe,” Merrill said.

For more information on the Whitman MOOC and how to enroll, visit the course website.

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