Coursera, UC San Diego Use MOOCs to Make Workers More Job-Ready

After establishing a new office of online education earlier this year, UC San Diego recently unveiled plans to develop massive open online courses—or MOOCs—to better prepare workers for jobs in two specialized tech sectors.

Under a “global skills initiative” announced by Mountain View, CA-based Coursera, UC San Diego said it will be working on the classes with Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM), the wireless technologies giant, and San Francisco-based Splunk (NASDAQ: SPLK), a big data software developer.

Coursera said last week its initiative is intended to provide workers with needed skills in today’s tech economy.

According to a 2015 ManpowerGroup survey, a third of employers in the U.S. and 38 percent of global employers report difficulties filling job vacancies due to “talent shortages.” When asked why, employers cited “lack of applicants,” (33 percent); lack of experience (19 percent), and lack of technical competencies or hard skills (17 percent).

Coursera, which provides free online classes, says it is working with a handful of industry partners and research universities to close the skills gap by making online students more work-ready. Two other big MOOC providers, Mountain View, CA-based Udacity and Cambridge, MA-based Edx also offer online courses that bring together the academic and private sectors, according to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal.

UC San Diego is working with Coursera and its industry partners to develop online course sequences in two specializations. One involves a Qualcomm subsidiary, Qualcomm Technologies, which is helping UC San Diego and Coursera develop online classes in the “Internet of Things,” technology that typically uses low-power wireless networks to connect inexpensive sensors and devices that only need to occasionally “chirp” bursts of data. The other involves Splunk, a leading provider of “big data” software, which is helping the San Diego Supercomputer Center at UC San Diego create online classes in “Big Data.”

Jeff Elman, a professor of cognitive science who was named as the inaugural director of UC San Diego’s new Office of Online and Technology Enhanced Education, calls the global skills initiative “a big deal.” As he explained, “One of the campus’ objectives in the online space is to promote access to and cultivation of skills that will enhance job readiness. Working with corporate partners is a great way to accomplish this.”

As director of online education at UC San Diego, Elman says he also has an opportunity to explore innovative methods of technology-based teaching and learning for both online students and UCSD faculty. The new online learning platform, UC San DiegoX, will host its first free, non-credited course, Computer Graphics CSE 167x, beginning Aug. 17. The class will be taught by Ravi Ramamoorthi, a professor in the Department of Computer Science at the Jacobs School of Engineering.

Elman recently responded to some questions about his new role at UC San Diego and the emergence of MOOCs. Our email exchange has been lightly edited.

Xconomy: Considering the controversies over online learning that erupted at San Jose State University and elsewhere, do you feel any trepidation about overseeing online education for UC San Diego?

Jeff Elman: I think that many faculty (and students as well) have understandable reservations about how to use online technology in education. The experience that many of us have with earlier forays into this field has not always been positive. And then of course the ‘MOOC mania’ that erupted in 2012 exacerbated such fears. We were told, alternatively, that MOOCs were either going to save civilization or destroy it! So I am completely sympathetic with the concerns that many people have.

My own feeling is that online technology has advanced in exciting ways, even in the past two years. Ironically, there are many things that as educators we want to do in our face-to-face classes that are difficult, especially in classes of more than a few dozen students, but which may be possible using online tools. Online technology is not a magic bullet, and it can be misused. But it also offers us the opportunity to rethink very basic questions about education. What conditions best promote learning? Can we make learning a more active process? Can we use online tools to support collaborative learning? Can online technology enable project-based learning? Can learning be made more personalized, so that the student’s experience adapts dynamically to individual needs, preparation, and interests?

X: How does this initiative compare with what’s happening at other colleges and universities, and other UC campuses?

JE: The Online Office (the full name is a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it?) was only established a month ago. But the campus has been carefully exploring the MOOC world for the past two years. Of course, UC San Diego Extension has been using online tools for many years. We have proceeded carefully and cautiously, but this does not mean we’ve been late to the party.

UCSD's Jeff ElmanHere is an interesting fact:  Coursera (one of our two MOOC partners) offers courses that come from 122 university partners. At present, all of these courses together have about 14 million learners in them. Impressively, over 1 million of those learners are in the UC San Diego courses [offered free through Coursera]. So we are 1 out of 122 universities offering MOOCs, but account for 1 out of 14 learners taking Coursera’s courses. One of our courses, ‘Learning How to Learn’ is said to be the largest MOOC ever offered by anyone.

This success is gratifying but it also made us realize that it was time to take a more organized and aggressive strategy toward what we do in the online world.

X: Why did you choose to make Computer Graphics CSE 167x the first course to be offered?

JE: Professor Ravi Ramamoorthi, who is a world leader in this area, is teaching the computer graphics course. He had already developed this course for edX, and was ready to go, so when the campus finalized its agreement with edX, this was a natural first course. But as I said, we have been offering courses on Coursera for several years now, with great success.

In addition, we just launched a new specialization (this is a sequence of courses that are focused on professional development) on Coursera that’s in the area of design. We also have the two professional specialization sequences that are part of Coursera’s Global Skills Initiative. In partnership with Qualcomm, UC San Diego is creating a specialization in the Internet of Things. And Splunk, a big data technology provider, is sponsoring our San Diego Supercomputer Center’s creation of a Big Data specialization. Both of these sequences will launch in the fall.

X: How do you measure whether the Online Office is succeeding?

JE: This is a great question, because the question of how one measures educational success goes far beyond just the online approach. This is one of the reasons why the Online Office is part of a newly established larger organization on campus, The Teaching and Learning Commons. One of the core areas of The Commons will be assessment and evaluation, and having the Online Office situated within The Commons will allow us to work together to develop metrics for success. Ultimately, the key goal is not the number of online courses we are offering or the number of students we reach, but rather how well our students learn. And here is where UC San Diego’s commitment to research comes in. As we develop new pedagogical approaches, we will be constantly testing the results to understand which approaches work better, and why. This is in some sense a scientific question, and the answers have very practical consequences for how we teach.

X: Can you describe the person who would take online classes through your program? What do the students who take these courses get out of the program?

JE: At present, I think there will be three main groups that we will be trying to reach.  The first will be our own students, who may use online materials in existing courses to enhance their learning. These are often called ‘hybrid courses’, involving ‘flipped learning’. A second group will be our educational pipeline. We would like to work together with teachers in local high schools and community colleges to develop courses that can accelerate students’ progress in college. A third focus will be to provide people—of any age, career or educational stage, and anywhere in the world—with professionally-oriented skill-building courses to enhance their workforce preparation and advancement.

X: Can they obtain a college degree?

JE: At present, almost all of the online courses offered by campus are non-credit bearing. So they do not count toward a college degree.  The University of California, however, does have the goal of increasing opportunities for students to take online courses for credit. Our campus participates in that initiative. The goal in this effort is not to replace the college degree but to expand opportunities for students to take some (but not most) courses online. However, it is quite possible that at the graduate level, we may in a few years offer professional degrees (e.g., Masters) that are online. In the meantime, many of the courses we will give online, including the specialization sequences, offer the option of obtaining a certificate that validates the student’s participation and completion in the course.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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