Tracye Pool only needs 10 minutes of your time.
As part of an exclusive $65,000 grant from the governor's office and the Tennessee Department of Education, lecturer Pool's two English Composition classes at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga have been an experiment in alternative higher education instruction this fall.
Instead of spending three days each week in lecture halls like most traditional college classes, Pool taught her students primarily through Coursera, a trendy online "MOOC" platform -- one 10- to 12-minute video "bite" at a time.
The videos supplemented message board discussion, and students met with Pool to elaborate on the material one day a week. Otherwise, students were free to review the videos at their leisure.
All in all, the project exists to compare new learning approaches against traditional classroom standards. After the UT-system and Coursera finalized their 18-month agreement in May 2013, Pool was admittedly uncertain.
"I was really uncomfortable with the changes at first," Pool said. "But 10 minutes really does match students' attention span, especially with dry material."
The MOOC acronym stands for "Massive Open Online Course." The usual MOOC, hosted through nationally recognized websites like Coursera or EdX, instructs more than 10,000 students at once (massive). They're free or low-cost (open). They're hosted on the Internet (online). And each class is moderated by an instructor (course).
Online classes and videos have existed at the higher education level for years, but the MOOC format is essentially the newest attempt to educate the masses for less. The MOOC industry has blossomed as more students search for cheaper education alternatives. Coursera registered its 3 millionth user in March 2013, and more than 5 million are registered today.
The main issue with many MOOC courses, though, is validity. The DIY-savvy classes might be handy for independent learning, but without certification or official backing from a school program, MOOC completion certificates fail to carry the same weight as an official program degree.
Pool's course -- backed with UTC's standard 3-credit offering -- was limited to 40 students, and only made available to UTC freshmen. Otherwise, the class paralleled Coursera protocol by allowing students to choose where and when they wanted to learn. However, students for this course did pay the same tuition they would have for a traditional class.
None of that made the transition any easier for Pool.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the average MOOC instructor in 2013 spends more than 100 hours on each course before starting their first class session. In each week after, they usually expect to spend 8-10 hours each week grading and commenting in the message forums.
Pool, the president of the Chattanooga Council of Teachers of English, had to suddenly adapt her entire curriculum in June to fit the new program.
"Students really liked the condensed material," she said. "But the MOOC wasn't designed for an English class."
Pool's main complaint with the program is the nature of English instruction itself. She can not directly message students to address specific questions, and thus uses Google Drive to give line-by-line writing feedback.
But students who had shyness issues in a traditional classroom format often thrived in her hybrid online setting.
"[Quiet students] were more likely to share on the message forums," she said. "Some of the students who made brilliant observations would not say anything in class at all."
Kim McCroskey, UTC's director of the center for online and distance learning, knows the pluses of online education.
McCroskey finished her master's degree entirely through Dalton State online courses, and a majority of her bachelor's degree in business administration came through distance classes at West Georgia University.
"When I was taking my classes, I would get up and wash the dishes," she said. "Some students can't stand to sit in the classroom, yet they want to take control of their learning."
Pool's class, "Online Communication," was supposed to demonstrated how technology changes people's ability to interact. McCroskey says the online alternative is ideal for UTC's students who don't quite match the "traditional" format.
"Our prize is not on reaching 10,000 people stretched across the world," McCroskey said. "We need to reach out to students who have barriers here -- like work schedules, finances or driving in to campus."
It's a simple theory that plays into Gov. Haslam's "Drive to 55" campaign, which aims to get 55 percent of Tennessee's working population a certificate or degree by 2025 in order to keep up with the demand pace for skilled workers. That number is about 32 percent now.
"We have to start reaching out to a lot of people that we don't traditionally think of in regards to post-secondary education students," Haslam told the Times Free Press in September. "That means a lot of adult learners, a lot of 37-year-old moms with two kids."
Classes like Pool's English comp class, or the introductory math course UT-Knoxville will try with MOOC software this spring, are considered "bottleneck courses," which often keep students from graduating on time due to waitlists and packed lecture halls. Having an online alternative could speed things up considerably, or so Haslam's strategy goes.
However, the added freedom of pre-recorded classes comes with great responsibility -- something Pool said was often shirked in her MOOC classes.
Pool was able to keep track of her students as a whole through Coursera's software. After a week where students said they didn't understand rhetorical analysis, she was disappointed to see that only 40 percent of her students had watched that week's video bite.
"I don't even know who, and that makes it difficult to establish accountability," Pool said.
UTC will introduce a follow-up course to English Composition I next semester, and aims to have math courses available through EdX, another MOOC juggernaut, by next fall.
Until the trial period is up, McCroskey says she is willing to try the unusual to improve UTC's class offerings.
"Does it help us reach out to students who need degrees like the governor says, or is it just a flash in the pan?" McCroskey asked.
"Either way, the best thing for us to do is be participants in the process -- not bystanders."
Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow him on Twitter at @PressLaFave.
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