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Dartmouth Joins With Colleges Offering Free Courses Online

Hanover — Dartmouth College will join dozens of other institutions next fall in offering online courses to learners around the globe.

College officials on Thursday announced Dartmouth has become the 31st institution to join edX, an online learning platform that was founded by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dartmouth’s partnership with edX means that a to-be-determined group of the college’s professors will moderate “massive open online courses” — known in academia as MOOCs — which will be accessible, generally for free, by anybody who signs up at the edX website.

Administrators hope the professors will use the experience to refine technology’s role in the courses they teach on campus.

“We want to utilize this edX opportunity ... to figure out how we can do education better, how we can bring higher education forward into the 21st century,” said Josh Kim, director of digital learning initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for Advancement Learning. “It’s a big goal.”

With the announcement, Dartmouth joins the ranks of familiar names such as Cornell and Boston University, as well as international schools like Kyoto University in Japan and the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.

Dartmouth will debut one MOOC on edX in the fall semester and add three more for spring 2015.

Dartmouth’s MOOC course list is still being developed. According to a faculty announcement posted at Dartblog, criteria for the selection of courses include that the proposal “demonstrates the potential to transform the on-campus version of the course or to stimulate a new on-campus course.” Consideration will also be given to courses that show no significant overlap with edX courses that are already being offered and for proposals that reflect “creative use of the on-line medium.”

The news comes at a time when MOOCs are gaining international acclaim as well as the attention of skeptics who doubt the medium’s potential for long-term success. According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education , a Babson Survey Research Group study showed an increase in skepticism toward MOOCs — which can sometimes host tens of thousands of students — by academic leaders in recent years.

In 2013, Babson researchers said, 39 percent of academic leaders disagreed that MOOCs were “a sustainable method for offering courses,” up from about a quarter of academic leaders in the previous year.

Kim said those doubts stem from unrealistic expectations of MOOCs’ role in fixing higher education’s cost problems. Dartmouth isn’t heedlessly jumping on the MOOC bandwagon, he said. Rather, the school is trying to chart its own course for using technology in education.

“We share their skepticism. MOOCs were over-hyped,” he said. “There was this whole idea that MOOCs were going to lower the cost of education and solve the challenges you have in higher education … and what’s great about Dartmouth, I think, is that (administrators and faculty) are very deliberate. We did not jump on this right away.”

The big picture, he said, is that Dartmouth educators will be able to learn from the experience of MOOCs to enhance their own classrooms, as well as analyzing data from MOOC classes to see what teaching tools and methods are effective.

The results of those efforts can then be inserted into Dartmouth classes, which Kim said thrive on close-knit relationships among students and professors in small classrooms.

“The Dartmouth edX courses, they’re not (going to be) like our courses here,” Kim said. “Our courses here are really built around relationships. You can’t bring that to scale, that has to be a small sort of thing where people come in here and get to know each other, so there’s nowhere that a MOOC is a substitute for a Dartmouth class.”

In a news release Thursday, Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon said joining edX would “enable our faculty to pave the way for the future, discovering new ways to teach that will take Dartmouth classrooms to the world.”

As provost at the University of Michigan, Hanlon was also on the advisory board for Coursera, a platform similar to edX that was utilized by Michigan. He left the board when he left Michigan to take the Dartmouth presidency this year, telling Bloomberg Businessweek last fall that an early priority in Hanover would be identifying Dartmouth’s “place in the online course arena,” the publication wrote.

Courses at the edX site are free, although students can pay to receive a certificate showing that they completed the course, which might be useful for job-hunters who want to show employers that they have gained expertise in a certain area. Students do not receive academic credit from the universities as a result of completing a MOOC.

Classes run on a semester schedule but are asynchronous, meaning there’s not a set class time; students can log into the system at any time of day to catch up on their latest coursework and assignments. Instructional videos are among the tools used to communicate with students.

The move to MOOCs has raised faculty eyebrows at some campuses, according to an article last June by The New York Times , which reported that some faculty on other campus have argued that MOOCs “will shortchange students, replacing the personal relationships that encourage learning,” and inciting fears about downgraded or eliminated faculty jobs.

Dartmouth professors interviewed on Thursday offered few concerns about edX, either supporting the movement or offering indifference. (“I really have no opinion about this,” one professor said in an email. “I wish them well.”)

Annelise Orleck, a professor of history at Dartmouth, said she was “personally very interested in the edX experiment.”

“I don’t think that online courses in any way replace on campus classes,” she said. “This is especially true for someone like me who is a firm believer in engaging students on every level in their own learning and in using classroom discussion to cultivate a sense of intellectual community among the students.”

Dartmouth’s partnership with edX, she said, would open up the possibility of Dartmouth faculty engaging with a “much wider range of students than are present on our campus,” including learners beyond the traditional college-aged years.

“And I think that will benefit all concerned, including faculty,” she said.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.