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In Texas, One Step Closer to a Free Freshman Year

By Catherine A. Cardno, Ph.D.

This fall, the University of Texas became the nation's largest state institution to offer free online college courses to high school students. Some 28,000 students took the introduction to engineering course.

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The University of Texas the system recently became the largest state institution to offer massive open online courses (MOOCs) to high school students and others who want to get a head start on their college education. Associated Press

November 10, 2015—The University of Texas (UT) system comprises eight academic campuses and six health institutions spread across the state, boasting in total more than 217,000 enrollees and 90,000 faculty and staff. This fall, the system became the largest state institution to offer massive open online courses (MOOCs) to high school students who want to get a head start on their college education. Such courses are open to anyone who wants to take them, bringing college-level learning straight to whomever is interested, regardless of their age, mobility, location, or schedule.

The move enables the state's high school and nontraditional students to explore the breadth and depth of possible majors as they prepare for college. The hope is that eventually such students could complete as much as a full year of freshman courses online at a minimal cost.

Faculty at the UT's Arlington, Austin, and Permian Basin campuses are teaching four introductory courses launched this fall, one each in engineering, precalculus, computer programming in Python, and sociology. The first three of these are especially useful to students preparing for college majors in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

"We are extremely interested in expanding the pipeline of students who are well prepared for success in college, especially in STEM fields," said Steven Mintz, Ph.D., the executive director of the UT system's Institute for Transformational Learning. Mintz wrote in response to written questions posed by Civil Engineering online.

The UT system is interested in creating a more seamless transition for students as they move from high school to college, according to Mintz. The Institute for Transformational Learning was established by UT to make high-quality education more accessible, affordable, and successful for the state's residents. It does so in part by integrating new technologies into UT classes to create new learning opportunities for students.

"Our student body—45 percent African-American and Latino and 40 percent [low-income] Pell Grant-eligible—represents in microcosm the demographics of the later 21st century," Mintz noted. "Texas's future depends on these students' success in college."

"Nationwide, the six-year graduation rate is less than 60 percent—and even lower for nontraditional students and students who have historically been underrepresented on college campuses," Mintz explained. By making it possible for high school seniors and nontraditional college students to complete introductory courses online, the expectation is that it will become easier for them to prepare for, and complete, a bachelor's degree.

The opportunities afforded by MOOCs may overcome some of the particular challenges that engineering students face in their early years, according to Pranesh B. Aswath, Ph.D., a professor of materials science and engineering and the associate dean of graduate affairs in the College of Engineering at University of Texas at Arlington, who wrote in response to questions posed by Civil Engineering online. Aswath, who was the lead professor in developing UT's introductory engineering MOOC, said that the engineering college experiences an unfortunate level of attrition during students' first and second years. This is typically due to inadequate mathematics preparation and a lack of understanding about what engineering options exist, he said. The online introduction to engineering course should help precollegiate students better understand the opportunities presented by engineering majors once they reach college. Some 28,000 students enrolled in the course this year, and that success level means that the course will be offered again next year.

"In high school one can choose advanced placement (AP) [classes] in physics, chemistry, and mathematics, but no option exists for engineering," Aswath explained. "We were looking to reach out to high school students who were interested in engineering to provide them with a good understanding of the different disciplines of engineering and some of the very interesting things that are going on in the field." The MOOC fulfills the role of an AP high school engineering course, as Aswath sees it.

The first portion of the introductory course gives the students an overview of the various engineering disciplines and a basic understanding of their historical context as disciplines. The second portion introduces practical engineering problems and teaches the students to use mathematics to solve those problems. This experience is designed to bridge the gap for students between typical mathematics courses and the practical application of mathematics knowledge that engineering requires, according to Aswath. "This demystifies mathematics and makes it less threatening to students, and they are better prepared when they have to learn calculus and differential equations as they now have a context as to how it can be used to solve engineering problems," Aswath noted.

Students in the engineering course will be assessed in a variety of ways, including by the traditional methods of homework, quizzes, and midterm and final exams. The course also requires peer assessments. In this particular course, however, students cannot earn university credit, according to Aswath. "In most cases students are taking the course for honor credit and they get a certificate of passing the course if they meet certain thresholds."

Other MOOCs offered by the UT system can, however, result in college credit being awarded. The UT system is partnering with the New York City-based Modern States Education Alliance, a nonprofit organization that offers a number of MOOCs as part of its bid to make it possible for students to complete the coursework for their entire freshman year free of charge, a program it calls "Freshman Year for Free." While the classes can be taken at no cost, proving that the knowledge from those courses has been absorbed requires passing either AP or college-level examination program (CLEP) exams offered by the New York City-based College Board, the same organization that administers the SAT.

"Modern States' goal is to create an on ramp to college—no one should be shut out of college due to tuition cost or lack of access," said David Vise, a senior advisor with Modern States Education Alliance, who wrote in response to questions posed by Civil Engineering online. The Freshman Year for Free initiative "provides students with the opportunity to take free classes online that, combined with passing scores on related AP and CLEP exams, can lead to credits at more than 1,500 colleges across the country," Vise explained.

The UT system's introductory courses are available on edX, a MOOC course provider founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University in 2012 that currently has 85 university, nonprofit, and institutional partners from around the world. And many of the UT system courses will soon be available on the Modern States website, as part of the Freshman Year for Free initiative.



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