Vanderbilt's new Institute for Digital Learning looks to the future of massively open online education 

MOOC Synthesizer

MOOC Synthesizer

It may seem like the Internet's been around forever. But just 20 years ago, most people didn't even have computers, let alone Internet connections. The digital age is in its infancy, and while it's already revolutionized so many fields, one of its areas of greatest potential — large-scale online learning — is just now beginning to be realized.

With the opening of its Institute for Digital Learning, Vanderbilt University seeks to be on the leading edge of the field. The institute will focus on developing massive open online courses — or MOOCs, as they're known — as well as other digital learning platforms. Vanderbilt is partnering with Coursera, a software and hardware infrastructure company that delivers the content. Doug Fisher, an associate professor of computer science and computer engineering at Vanderbilt, is the director of the new institute.

And it's definitely new. Fisher started in the position July 1, and as this paper hits the stands, he and his staff are probably unpacking boxes in their office in Alumni Hall.

Fisher has been using online courses to enhance his on-campus classes for a couple of years, and he also helped create large online programs at the National Science Foundation, so he's a natural fit for the position. He refers to the blending of online materials and in-class teaching as "active learning in the classroom." By delivering the nuts-and-bolts material — the kind of stuff he used to teach with lectures and Powerpoint presentations — online, he can more effectively use classroom time to actively engage students by giving them problems to work on, individually or in small groups.

"I can walk around the classroom, take questions and check on the students' progress, instead of spending the time lecturing," Fisher says. He's taken online courses himself, and he says the experience has been positive.

But while online materials are certainly a boon for college students, the greatest potential for digital learning may be MOOCs, which can have enrollments ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands of students, and are typically offered free of charge. In other words, anyone across the globe with an Internet connection can take the courses. This represents a major step forward for people who might otherwise not have access to educational opportunities.

"I think you're going to see these offerings become friendlier to mobile platforms for some of these reasons," Fisher says.

As it stands now, only a few MOOCs have been approved for college credit, though Fisher points out that it's up to each university to decide whether it will accept a course for credit.

"And even in cases where a course may not count for credit per se," Fisher says, "you can imagine instructors might allow a course to satisfy a prerequisite."

Fisher says MOOCs are proving valuable as tools for continuing education too. "Some people currently taking these courses are already out in the workforce and doing quite well," he says.

Of course, online learning is a rapidly evolving field, so more college-credit courses will likely be offered over time. And ultimately, MOOCs are about providing education. Whether they count toward a degree or not, MOOCs provide enrichment opportunities to all sorts of people, and the implications for improving conditions and opportunities around the world are vast.


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