When the Open University first launched science courses in the 1970s, it sent students home experiment kits, which included micro-computers, rock samples, microscopes, lasers to create holograms and even fish tanks to study animal behaviour.
Now it seems that massive open online courses have brought distance learning full circle, after a US university announced that it would mail out circuit boards and other equipment to students enrolling in the first fully online electrical engineering master’s degree.
The University of Colorado Boulder is set to launch the new massive open online course-based degree in the autumn, with additional curricula rolling out in 2018-19.
The degree will have a “modular and stackable structure”, according to the university, meaning that students can select about 30 subjects that best suit them as they move through the programme. Each of the 100 courses on offer will feature in-depth video content, reading materials and resources and assessments, and many will also “bring the laboratory experience out of the Engineering Center to Mooc students around the world” by “inviting students to apply their knowledge using hardware and software kits at home”, the university said.
Bob Erickson, professor of power electronics and renewable energy systems at the university, who developed the programme, said the university has already designed kits for the course on embedded systems engineering – a field in which a computer is designed and programmed to perform predefined tasks, usually with very specific requirements.
For this course, students will be sent a circuit board with an embedded system that can plug into their laptop and will form the basis of assignments, he said. The results of the tests will then either be sent automatically to the lecturers or entered manually by students, he said.
“Those kits are designed to be low-cost so students can afford it,” said Professor Erickson, adding that they will cost in the range of “tens of dollars” rather than thousands of dollars. Overall the degree will cost around $20,000 (£14,000), which is half the price of the equivalent on-campus programme, he said.
The technology also means that technical assignments can be machine-graded immediately, with students receiving instant feedback. It allows students to retake assignments as many times as they want, which provides a “better learning experience than the traditional on-campus” model, added Professor Erickson.
While remote students can enrol in the university’s on-campus engineering programmes, the traditional model does not address the need of non-traditional students as classes are “taught by on-campus faculty” at a time that “makes sense to us”, he said.
In contrast, the new Mooc degree will be “asynchronous from the semester schedule”, meaning that students can access material at any time.
“It is obviously a very experimental programme. We have high hopes,” Professor Erickson said.
Mike Sharples, emeritus professor of educational technology at the OU, described the new degree as “a brave venture to offer hands-on learning at home”, as sending equipment through the post is “costly and time-consuming”.
“The university is going to face challenges in producing, sending and maintaining the home experiment kits. I hope it will find new ways to sustain a combination of lab kits and online learning,” he said.
About 500 prospective students have expressed an interest in the degree.