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The Daily Tar Heel

MOOCs at UNC benefit students, professors alike

More than 230,000 students from more than 180 countries have enrolled in massive open online classes, known as MOOCs, offered by UNC since July 2013.

People across the globe continue to take advantage of world-class professors by enrolling in the classes, but UNC professors teaching the massive classes have also benefited.

After teaching MOOCs as large as 40,000 students, economics professor Buck Goldstein, said he learned how to facilitate and communicate with his large lectures better. 

“Probably the biggest lesson of this semester has been that we can use techniques from the MOOC to make on campus class better,” he said.

In Goldstein’s MOOC, “What’s Your Big Idea?” students communicated and discussed the material through 900 forums online. Goldstein said he plans to use forums in his Introduction to Entrepreneurship course with about 320 students enrolled to foster communication and to help students help each other.

Rob Bruce, director of the Friday Center, said MOOCs are an educational experiment and give professors the ability to reach students across the world.

“The primary reason we became involved is to see what we can learn and also to see how these courses, when we create them, can be used in a face-to-face classroom as well,” he said.

Since the inception of MOOCs at UNC, 7 courses have been offered through Coursera. Each course, free and available to anyone, lasts about six weeks with prerecorded lectures, forums for participation and quizzes.

A majority of people enrolled in MOOCs live outside of the U.S.

The hope for these massive courses were to make world-class teachers and educational institutions accessible to people across the world, law professor Donald Hornstein said.

“The whole point of a MOOC is to sort of push us on making sure that we communicate things and make it more accessible,” he said.

Despite the intentions of MOOCS, most people enrolling in courses already have degrees, Hornstein said.

High school students are also enrolling to supplement what they're learning.

“The people who are really jumping onto these things are people who don’t need them,” Hornstein said.

Although MOOCs may not be reaching their original targeted audience, they help Carolina reach its mission of outreach, Bruce said.

“I think one of the largest benefits is really bringing together the diverse community across the globe,” he said.

Bruce said people can access information from experts such as Bill Ferris, who teaches a MOOC on the American South.

“They’re each bringing a different perspective,” he said. “And if you think about the American South, and that it’s being discussed in an international community, that’s pretty fascinating.”

Bruce said funding for MOOCs at UNC has decreased, but the University will continue to create two or three new courses a year.

Goldstein said online education is an important part of higher education and that MOOCs are just one component of it.

“MOOCs are just one little tiny data point in a much bigger thing, which is online education, and the impact it’s going to have on higher education and continuing education.”

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