Steven Mintz

It’s been a year since UT launched its first massive open online courses, or MOOCs, and, despite low completion rates, Steven Mintz, executive director of the UT System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, said they are part of building a learning platform for the future.

After looking at data from the University’s first eight MOOCs from the fall 2013 and spring 2014 semesters, Mintz said a total of about 281,000 people from all over the world enrolled in the courses. Of this number, only about 1-13 percent complete the MOOCs.

Mintz, who is also a history professor at the University, said there might be several reasons for the low completion rates, including the age of MOOC students and their motives for taking the free online courses.

“Your parents aren’t paying $10,000 for you to be sitting in a class, and they expect you to finish,” Mintz said. “It’s a very different experience. Also, most MOOC students are older. They often have degrees. They’re doing it either out of interest or because of professional credentialing. They’re not there to get a BA for the most part.”

In 2012, the UT System invested $5 million into edX, an online learning platform and provider of MOOCs and allocated an additional $5 million to be used for course development. Only $1.5 million of the additional funds have been used for course development. Founded in 2012, edX first offered MOOCs created by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before expanding to offer content from other universities.

Mintz said UT is increasing the spread of its international image, and its ability to compete with other top colleges by being one of the first universities to use MOOC technology.

“We play football in the big leagues, and, academically, we need to be in the big leagues,” Mintz said. “Faculty members of the caliber that UT-Austin has need to feel that they have exactly the same opportunities as a Princeton professor or a Harvard professor, and I want to make sure they have those opportunities.”

Engineering associate professor Michael Webber, who taught the “Energy 101” MOOC, said teaching these free courses is beneficial for the University because professors become better at teaching through learning how to internationalize their content and prepare it for a digital format.

“It forced me to think about how the course I taught works around the world,” Webber said.

While University students don’t directly benefit from MOOCs unless they take the online course, Mintz said materials are currently being developed for MOOCs that can be used in UT classrooms.

“Instead of having a textbook, the MOOC might be the textbook,” Mintz said. “A lot of money is being spent to create interactives, virtual laboratories, virtual reality environments and immersive learning experiences. Even if you never take a MOOC, some of the materials we have developed for the MOOC will be used in classes you will take.”

Mintz said there is also potential in the future for MOOCs to be offered for credit, but Harrison Keller, vice provost for higher education policy and research, said there are still problems to be worked out before this can happen.

“One of the problems with offering MOOCs for credit center around being able to authenticate who is taking the MOOC,” Keller said. “You don’t know if it’s the same person every time.”

In addition to making sure the person who registers for the MOOC is the same person taking their exams, Webber said MOOCs are bad at being able to see whether students have mastered the material.

“I don’t think MOOCs should be offered as course credit until assessment in general gets figured out,” Webber said. “This is a solvable problem. We’re just not there yet.”

Editor's note: Mintz's comments and the amount the UT System has dedicated to the program have been updated for accuracy.

Germanic studies professor John Hoberman will teach one of the four massive open online courses that UT is offering in the fall.

Photo Credit: Erika Rich | Daily Texan Staff

While a major university in California has suspended its massive open online course program, UT is preparing to launch its own MOOC program in September.

Partnering with online education provider edX, UTAustinX, UT’s MOOC program, will start with four classes in the fall semester: “Age of Globalization,” “Energy 101,” “Ideas of the Twentieth Century” and “Take Your Medicine — The Impact of Drug Development.”

UT is offering these courses for free to anyone in the world interested in the subject matter. Currently, 88,272 people have signed up to take one of the UT MOOCs. UT will not offer credit, but students who pass the course can obtain a certificate of mastery.

“The University has always made some of its educational offerings available freely to the public; MOOCs are the latest way that we can perform that service role,” said Harrison Keller, vice provost of higher education policy and research at UT. “Through these initial MOOCs, our faculty [is] experimenting with the possibilities of this particular format and the context for providing educational experiences to participants around the world.”

The UT System Board of Regents partnered with edX and invested $5 million into the nonprofit company, becoming the fourth school to partner with the company and joining the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

The University selected four courses to start in the fall and five more to start in the spring 2014 semester. The University has spent $150,000 developing each course, officials said.

“We want the University of Texas to be an international leader in the development of next generation learning,” said Steven Mintz, executive director of the UT System Institute for Transformational Learning. “I think it is extremely important that our faculty help design 21st century teaching and learning. We want to give them the opportunity, with peer institutions, to be the real leader in this area.”

Although UT’s MOOC program is preparing to start in the fall, San Jose State University recently decided to suspend its MOOC program for the fall semester. SJSU’s program started in the spring 2013 semester. According to SJSU’s website, courses were offered for credit to both SJSU students and members of the public for a fee of $150. The Los Angeles Times reported the decision to suspend the program was made after the majority of students failed the courses.

Howard Lurie, vice president of external affairs at edX, said SJSU’s program was administered through a different company and MOOCs are still a new form of learning.

“Does it work in all subjects for all students all the time? No, nor does face-to-face learning,” Lurie said. “This is a new paradigm shift, and there will always be progress. Progress is based on evaluation of failures.”

Keller said a similar decision from UT would require the faculty to lose interest in teaching MOOCs.

“I don’t see that happening on the near term because when you talk to the faculty who are working on these courses, they are asking hard, interesting questions,” Keller said.

Along with other programs, Mintz said the goal of the MOOC program is to find new ways of teaching for UT students, such as blended learning.

“Our goal, ultimately, is to improve and enhance the learning of students at the University of Texas at Austin,” Mintz said. “We are going to be developing a lot of interactive learning tools, and we’re going to integrate those into our face-to-face classes. It is a real exciting opportunity for integration, and we will see what works.”

Some of the professors in the MOOC program plan on converting their MOOCs into a blended learning course where students view course materials online before discussing it in the classroom with an instructor. John Hoberman, a Germanic studies professor who will teach the “Age of Globalization” MOOC, said he plans on developing his course into a blended learning class for UT students.

“A MOOC is not a substitute for the classroom experience,” Hoberman said. “A MOOC is analogous to a textbook. You don’t give up the classroom experience because a textbook is available.”

However, Keller said that the purpose of the MOOC program is to offer some of UT’s services to members of the public, and pointed out that the University has already blended learning programs.

“I think it’s important not to confuse this mode of delivery with the larger landscape of what we’re working on at UT-Austin,” Keller said. “UT- Austin is a leader on almost every dimension.”

According to Juan Garcia, producer of the “Energy 101” MOOC, the courses will work by combining instructional videos, quizzes and online interaction between students as well as with the instructor.

“Everything is designed to encourage the student to try,” Garcia said.

Executive director of the Institute of Transformational Learning Steven Mintz is behind innovating collaborative and personalized online classes to propel UT in becoming a leader for online education. 

Photo Credit: Yamel Thompson | Daily Texan Staff

Though he has never taught in a UT classroom, Steven Mintz has a presence in nearly every introductory-level course the University offers.  

Mintz is the executive director of the Institute of Transformational Learning, an organization created last year by the UT System Board of Regents with the purpose of establishing UT as a world leader for online learning. He takes his job seriously and thinks in big terms. 

“I want to invest in pedagogical innovation,” Mintz said. “And I want the University of Texas to be the leader in this. Every major university and system is pushing into online education, and that realm is going to become much more competitive. I want to make sure we’re the best.” 

Mintz said a large part of his job is finding the best resources the University has and making them widely available for thousands of people outside of UT’s campus. For students already enrolled, he hopes to personalize education and focus on active, project-based learning. 

“The [massive open online courses], for example, are going to be what I’ll call next-generation online education, not going to be narrated PowerPoints,” Mintz said. “They’re really going to emphasize social learning — collaboration, project-based learning. They’re going to incorporate animations and simulations and interactive laboratories. And they are going to be cool.”

Mintz said he knows some faculty will be more hesitant to embrace his technological initiatives. At the UT Faculty Council meeting in March, he addressed those concerns head-on.

“If I were you, I would be a bit suspicious, and even cynical, about the System saying it’s going to help you out — especially if it’s offering to help you out with your teaching,” Mintz said. “But I have to reassure you, I’m an academic, a member of the history department. I’ve written 13 books. I’m one of you.”

At the meeting, Mintz said he wanted to debunk what he characterized as misunderstandings about his purpose.

“I’m not here to abolish tenure. I’m not here to replace flesh and blood teaching with screen time,” Mintz told faculty. “I’m not here to build a marble edifice in Austin.”

Harrison Keller, vice provost for higher education policy and research, said Mintz’s energy isn’t always obvious at first. 

“He’s very unassuming, so he’s not the sort of person who’s going to dominate the room,” Keller said.

It’s when Mintz is speaking for his cause, technological innovation, that he comes alive. Music professor Martha Hilley, chairwoman of the UT Faculty Council, introduced Mintz at a recent meeting by highlighting this passion. 

“I got to a System Faculty Council meeting a little late last year, and when I arrived, Dr. Mintz was already speaking — I thought my goodness, I have come to a revival meeting,” Hilley told faculty in her introduction. “This man is an evangelist.”  

Mintz said he knows he is an intensely focused man. He said he typically wakes up at 5 a.m. to begin his work day and only stops when he falls asleep. Even Mintz’s hobbies reflect his passions. In his free time, Mintz runs two online discussion forums focused on slavery and contemporary family issues and writes about the history of American adulthood.

“They don’t sound like hobbies,” Mintz said. “I know these aren’t great hobbies. They’re just really what I do.” 

Mintz said ultimately, he feels adapting classrooms for the 21st century is critical work.

“The future of this country depends on our success in educating a highly diverse student body, and I believe we have that student body,” Mintz said. “Our experiments in student success are deeply meaningful.”

The UT classroom is coming to the web, and the web is coming to the classroom. 

“In the next 18 to 36 months, some really profound changes are going to occur in public higher education,” said Steven Mintz, executive director of the UT System Institute for Transformational Learning. “Nationwide, universities are going to move aggressively into the online space — students are consuming education in multiple ways.” 

The University’s new approach focuses on two primary goals: making its resources available to people outside of the University and making the educational experience more personal for students. Part of that initiative is massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which are courses that anyone in the world can take online for free. Earlier this month, the UT System debuted four of these courses on the edX platform. Within three days, nearly 15,000 students had enrolled. 

“MOOCs are aimed at large audience around the world, to showcase some of the strengths of the University,” said Harrison Keller, vice provost for higher education policy and research.  

Gene Powell, chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, said he feels this reflects the System’s role on the forefront of education innovation.

“There’s a paradigm shift going on in higher education in America,” Powell said at a recent board meeting. “The UT System is leading it.” 

Personalized learning initiatives largely rely on data analytics, which Mintz said he hopes will make the educational experience more effective. For example, some online courses will anonymously track students’ keystrokes, using speed as one factor for calculating understanding. 

“Students have different pathways and trajectories, so let’s tailor education to suit that,” Mintz said. “We’re going to use a lot of diagnostic software to figure out when students don’t know something, and we’re going to be able to create more personalized modules that will strengthen students in precisely the area where they need help.”

Keller stressed the faculty-driven nature of educational experimentation, as well as the wide variety of new techniques being tested out. 

“Our professors are asking really interesting questions about how we can improve individual student learning in large courses,” Keller said. “Some faculty are experimenting with systems students use on their phones, in order to collect information in real time about what students are understanding or not. Others combine online elements with face-to-face engagement.”

Keller said it is important to remember that some techniques have been around for decades. He cited “flipping the classroom,” an approach where students listen to lectures and study content before class in order to do hands-on learning once class begins, as an example.

“We frame ‘flipping the classroom’ as a novelty, but we’ve had faculty doing versions of it for a long time,” Keller said. “One professor said he supposed he’d been using the practice for years — but he just called it homework.”

UT Government Professor James Henson and Texas State Representative Dan Branch hold a panel on education in the state of Texas at the downtown Hilton hotel on Monday afternoon. The panel was part of SXSWedu.

Photo Credit: Jorge Corona | Daily Texan Staff

Higher education institutions can graduate more students by shifting the landscape of college classes toward innovative technological learning models, according to a panel of higher education officials who spoke Tuesday, the second day of SXSWedu.

UT-Brownsville president Juliet Garcia and Steven Mintz, executive director of the UT System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, were part of a panel on teaching new educational methods to old colleges. They discussed integrating technology into the higher-education model and making changes to the roles of faculty members.

The panel was part of SXSWedu, a four-day event that hosts education panelists and speakers and is part of the annual South By Southwest conference and festival. 

“When I advocate for online education, I’m not advocating for it instead of small seminars,” Mintz said. “I’m talking about courses like the ones I’ve taught with 592 students with no break out sessions, totally impersonal relationships between faculty and students and a 30 percent failure rate.”

The institute, which Mintz heads, was founded in 2012 as part of a System-wide initiative to enhance student learning in an innovative way and increase graduation rates.

Last October, the UT System Board of Regents voted to offer massive open online courses. Starting this fall, UT-Austin will pioneer this venture within the System and offer six free online courses through edX, a nonprofit distributor of interactive online courses.

Garcia said some faculty members are willing to use online platforms, adapt to technology in the classroom and accept their changing roles. This wave of technology also comes at a time when faculty who are resistant to change are retiring, according to Garcia. 

“The most important thing is that no one’s job will look the same in a few years,” Garcia said. “It’s going to be uncomfortable for a while, but that’s okay.”

Mintz and Garcia also spoke about increasing graduation and retention rates by offering nontraditional courses.

Garcia said retention rates can be increased by finding programs that work well and scaling them up with technology that didn’t exist before.

UT-Brownsville currently partners with nearby high schools to offer a math and science pathway for high school juniors and seniors, but the program is limited to 140 students each year.

Garcia said technology can help increase this figure and reduce the time it takes these students to graduate.

Online interactive courses and accelerated courses that don’t fit into the 18-week course calendar can serve as solutions, Mintz said.

Mintz said 50 percent of UT-Austin students will fail at least one science course and 20 to 25 percent of students will “fail out” by the end of their second year.

UT-Austin spokeswoman Tara Doolittle said these figures only apply to those students who take six years to graduate.

More than 80 percent of students at the University graduate within six years, while about 50 percent graduate in four years.

Published on March 6, 2013 as "SXSWedu panel urges education innovation". 

Executive director of the Institute for Transformational learning Steven Mintz speaks to the UT Senate’s general assembly about edX. courses Thursday evening.
Photo Credit: Aaron Berecka | Daily Texan Staff

Beyond its partnership with a nonprofit offering innovative online classes, the UT System hopes to continue its growth in the world of digital and interactive education.

Steven Mintz, executive director of the Institute for Transformational Learning, spoke to the UT Senate’s general assembly Thursday evening, where he said it was important that UT lead the world in an innovative transition of higher education.

“If we do not do it, somebody else will and we probably won’t like what they do,” Mintz said.

Earlier in October, UT joined edX after a unanimous vote by the UT System Board of Regents. The nonprofit organization, which offers online education courses, was founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last year. Since then, the University of California at Berkeley and the UT System have signed on to join edX.

The UT System pledged $10 million and four online courses to edX, but Mintz, who serves as the UT System’s chief edX liaison, said he wanted to see UT do more than provide those four courses online. Mintz said he wanted UT to continue providing more innovative, online classes for its students.

“Students who are in these large, pinch point, gateway, foundation courses are getting an OK experience, but they can get a better one in an interesting way,” Mintz said. “Let’s try to use some of our technologies to see if we can create something cool.”

Mintz said he wanted to emphasize that the idea of online courses was not being forced on faculty or students.

“In some places like California, there has been a lot of resistance to doing this,” Mintz said. “I think people are afraid that this isn’t about what is good for students, that it won’t be faculty driven and that it will come from up high in the administration. It won’t be that way here.”

Mintz said student involvement would be welcomed.

“I want to find ways so students can participate in the creation of new online courses,” Mintz said. “We’re going to try and bring these courses into the 21st century.”

Graduation rates are one of the problems facing higher education, Mintz said. When the UT System signed on with edX, Gene Powell, chairman of the UT System, said the partnership with edX would help increase graduation rates. Along with Mintz, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa also said he wanted the UT System to lead a higher education revolution.

“New technologies are positively impacting how professors teach and how course content is delivered,” Cigarroa said in a statement earlier this month.

“The University of Texas System will help lead this revolution and fundamentally alter the direction of online education.”

Printed on Friday, November 2, 2012 as: UT adds focus on digital education