The road that led to MOOCs, and should UC Davis join?

Levin, David_005E-textbooks. Hybrid and online courses. Using learner analytics to assess experiments that involve academic technology. The future of SmartSite.

These are a few of the areas that David Levin intends to discuss, and address, as director of Academic Technology Services for Information and Educational Technology. Below, you’ll find an excerpt from an interview with Levin. You can also read the full text.

There many online offerings at UC Davis now; do you think there will be more?

Yes. Online learning has existed since the mid-1990s, when the World Wide Web took off. That provided a rich graphical user interface for the Internet, which made fairly rich online learning engagements possible. Online learning is an extension of much older distance-learning initiatives, using TV, radio, and all kinds of things. It has a rich, long history.

The history has not always been accepted as great education, so a lot of faculty, and others, have a healthy skepticism. As a learning tool, is online learning as effective as being on campus in class? How can we be sure the person taking the exam is who they say they are, and not a friend, or someone they’ve hired? We’ve got issues involving quality, honesty and integrity to overcome. There has been a worry that online learning is second-class, in terms of how good it is.

But some things over the past few years have pushed in a different direction. First, more than 10 years ago, MIT had its open-course initiative. It committed to putting all of its course content online, so it would be freely available to anyone. That’s a great asset for the world.

At the time I was doing some consulting for a group in South Africa. A lot of educators and even whole universities in the developing world used this content as their source for the courses they were offering in South Africa, or Kenya, or other places. This open content was a great asset—and who can argue that the content from MIT is low quality?

So, we certainly have the ability, using the Internet, to put a lot of really rich high-quality content online.

But there’s more to it than putting the material online.

Yes. What can we do to make it a rich learning experience? It isn’t just ‘do what you want with it, we don’t have any learning resources, any advising for the students, any interaction with the instructors,’ and the like.

One huge change in online learning happened about a year and a half ago. A few instructors in computer science at Stanford opened their regular courses to anyone who wanted to sign up. Sebastian Thrun and a colleague from Google offered a course in artificial intelligence on campus. They put the course online. They figured they’d get a few thousand students.

Over 160,000 people signed up! Somewhere over 20,000 students completed the course—they did all the work. The students who performed best were not the ones at Stanford. They were some of the students online.

So, yes, there are questions about integrity of online education. But Stanford was not offering college credit, other than to the students on campus. They were just taking the course. There was no skin in the game for anyone to cheat, because they didn’t get any credit. But it appears there was some serious learning going on.

This leads us to MOOCs.

The term means Massive Open Online Course. A few years before the experiments at Stanford, some folks at other universities started this, on the scale of thousands of students.

In MOOCs, students seem to organize themselves into groups. They rely on each other to create a certain amount of interactivity. They would form ad hoc learning study groups, which often became very rich. The learning community that came out of one early MOOC is still ongoing.

All these things show that online learning is not just a flash in the pan.

Yes, and they seem to show that serious learning can happen online. Now, how can we properly assess it and credential the person to say, ‘you’ve learned this’?

To bring the subject back to UC Davis: A lot of universities are beginning to ask themselves how they can play in this game of new motivations and new options for online learning.

Some providers of these MOOCs are companies, such as Coursera and Udacity, which grew out of the Stanford experiments. Another group, edX, started as a partnership between Harvard and MIT to create online courses, and Berkeley has now joined that group. More than two dozen universities are affiliated with Coursera, and offer Coursera courses. Coursera offers nearly 200 courses to anyone who wants to learn from them.

We at Davis should ask ourselves, do we play in this? Would it be helpful for us to help our instructors, our faculty members, our great departments, get some of the content online, so we can help teach the world?

The MOOCs are an extension of what was going on with the MIT open-courseware movement, but rather than just putting the content out there, is it possible to put a whole mediated course out there, where I’m teaching as an instructor, and teach the world?

And at UC Davis?

At UC Davis, we should explore this. A small group on campus has talked with the fellow from Udacity, and will be talking with a founder of Coursera, because it is a very useful way for us to do a number of things.

First, if we have this great learning, and we can offer some of this so we teach the world, isn’t that one of the missions of a great public land-grant institution, that we should be doing what we can to teach the world?

It also lets people know what we offer. Maybe, by offering some courses in this fashion, a group of students in China see it, and want to come to us.

Also, if we develop content that we put into the UC online or hybrid courses, that content can move from one teaching modality to another. We could offer the content for credit within the UC online program. We could then offer a version through a massively open online course available worldwide—perhaps taught in a slightly different way, because we wouldn’t offer the same level of credentialing or anything like that.

I imagine you welcome faculty who want to talk with you about all this?


What’s the best way for them to contact you?

Send me an email ( or call me (530-752-2133). Even better, as much as I live in the virtual world, I want to get together and talk with you. So, set up an appointment. Drop by.

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