How Texas Universities Will Offer Free Freshman Year to Nontraditional Students

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Texas University

September 10, 2015; ValleyCentral.com (Rio Grande Valley, TX)

Beginning in the Fall semester of 2016, freshman non-traditional students will be led to the option of taking ten MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) for that year instead of sitting in classes or taking small online courses from Texas state universities. The MOOCs are not products of the Texas State university system and their professors are not leading the courses. Instead, the content is to be presented by Freshman Year for Free, a program from a New York-based nonprofit called the Modern States Education Alliance. There will be a $90 charge per class to cover the tests necessary to receive course credit.

David Vise, a senior advisor for Modern States, believes the program will be used in a variety of ways by lots of different people—working students, high school students without sufficient access to AP courses, military personnel trying to advance their education while in service, and those who stopped advancing their education short of getting a degree. This array of accessibility needs is certainly enticing, but there may be another set of considerations.

In adopting this product, Texas State is also taking on bigger issues: They have no ownership of these courses, they risk the morale of their existing faculty, and there is a greater chance of failure. The target demographic comprises a population of working, older students who may have never taken online courses before. While these students may have some college in their past, it’s likely that their experience was classroom-based or, more recently, the smaller, online class model. In each course, MOOCs have a vast group of scholars, and one student among hundreds is quickly lost.

This author tried a MOOC from MIT last year to understand what they were all about. It was the only time I had ever walked away from a course without completing it. I have taken many online courses; each had fewer than 20 students, letting the professor interact easily with each one. The students could even interact with each other, albeit virtually. In the MOOC, it was frustrating getting feedback or having questions answered, and the number of students with whom to work was overwhelming.

There have been a variety of articles on MOOCs in the NPQ Newswire. One discussed the worries of professors about the quality of learning and, likely, the future of their jobs. Another had an interview with Anant Agarwal, the founder and president of edX, a major MOOC provider. Agarwal himself was adamant in that article about “the importance of what he refers to as the ‘magic of campus’ for students, which comes from inspiration from teachers and collaboration with other students.” A “blended learning model” of online and in person is critical. Ten MOOC courses in a row for a freshman year does not seem to include that blend, but these are new times and it will be interesting to see how this experiment works for the school and the students.—Marian Conway