Classes for masses: Free courses draw stadium-sized enrollments

Published: March 22nd, 2013

Category: Spotlights

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More than 45,000 students enrolled in the University of Florida’s fundamentals of human nutrition with Kristina von Castel-Roberts this semester. No, she doesn’t deliver lectures in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

To put that number in perspective, UF’s total enrollment is about 50,000.

Von Castel-Roberts of UF’s College of Public Health & Health Professions is the first professor in the state to offer a massive open online course, or MOOC. UF is giving her teaching away for free, though not for credit, to anyone in the world with an Internet connection.

Enrollments exceeding 100,000 in Stanford University-taught courses in 2011 marked the start of a MOOC craze that has attracted students by the millions. Students from six continents — few, if any, of whom are Gators — are taking the UF nutrition course.

Wendell Porter, a lecturer in the department of agricultural and biological engineering, has 16,000 students enrolled “Global Sustainable Energy: Past Present and Future,” a MOOC scheduled for a late March start.

“We don’t know where this is going, but we’re not going to get left behind,” Porter said, “and we’re not going to do a bad job.”

A worldwide reach

Porter has long taught online courses to a UF-only crowd, but he expects that in his first MOOC he may reach more students than he has in decades of classroom teaching.

The business angle to that reach is that it gives the University of Florida a head start in what’s looking like a gold rush in higher education.

Coursera, one of the leading players in the infant MOOC industry, brought UF into its invitation-only consortium in September. At the time, the Coursera group consisted of 33 universities worldwide. That had grown to 62 as of early March, including Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, Emory, the University of Edinburgh and National University of Singapore. UF is Florida’s only Coursera member.

So where’s the gold in free classes? In UF’s case, it’s in introducing five courses this semester as loss leaders, said W. Andrew McCollough, associate provost for teaching and technology. The bet is that given a free taste of a UF education, enough students will become tuition-paying, credit-and-degree-seeking customers to justify the $25,000-per-course upfront expense, McCollough said. It’s what he described as “a limited risk” as the university carefully selected professors and titles for the first UF MOOCs.

The teacher learns, too

The University of Florida’s early participation in the MOOC movement gives it a jump on learning how to design courses for a mass audience from one of the leaders in the infant industry. UF’s course designers work with Coursera’s experts to stage a course for tens of thousands, for example.

“Not only am I educating, but I am becoming more educated,” von Castel-Roberts said. Having students from Ethiopia, Brazil and New Zealand participate in her class is giving her insights into nutritional guidelines worldwide that she can put to use in teaching local students interested in careers in international aid, von Castel-Roberts said.

“I feel like the experience will make me a better educator,” she said.

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