Md.'s Higher Ed. Institutions are Pioneering New Course Designs, Chancellor Tells Senate


WASHINGTON—Institutions of higher education can reduce costs and become more effective by using massive online courses and blended-learning classes, said William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, in testimony before a Senate committee Thursday.

Massive Open Online Courses, or “MOOCs,” are interactive, online courses that are available to thousands. They can eliminate textbook costs and reach those with less money, said Kirwan, former president of the University of Maryland, College Park.

Maryland is experimenting with MOOCs as part of a $1.4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The courses are being tested in a dozen classrooms across the state’s university system, with results expected next summer.

“This isn’t just an online lecture,” Kirwan said afterward in an interview. “(It’s) created using very sophisticated technology and informed by cognitive sciences,” which adapts to people’s learning styles so they can understand the material more easily.

The cognitive science research and program—called the Open Learning Initiative—was developed into software by Carnegie Mellon University and is being incorporated into the university system’s Massive Open Online Courses, Kirwan said in written testimony.

Separately, the Open Learning Initiative , which has been employed at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Towson University and other public colleges outside of Maryland, produced similar final exam results as traditional courses, but students spent 25 percent less time on the experimental course, Kirwan said.

This, Kirwan said, has made the courses more effective and also opened up time for professors to focus on other courses.

“Hybrid classes,” which are more interactive and include computer tutorials and less formal lectures than regular courses, have also been piloted in the state’s university system.

At the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, students received more passing and fewer failing grades in the redesigned class than in the traditional ones.

These various experimental methods in higher education “create the most exciting opportunity in my 50 years of higher education,” Kirwan said.

In his written statement to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Kirwan said that technology is not a “magic bullet,” adding that total elimination of traditional classrooms would be “an enormous mistake.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., questioned whether the new methods were thoroughly investigated. Asked twice if only one experiment with positive results for the redesigned course was “enough” to have it be approved for use, Kirwan said yes.

Kirwan was one of five higher education officials from around the country who testified at the hearing.

The panel is the second in a series of committee hearings the senators will hold on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which passed in 1965. The law has been reauthorized nearly every decade.

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