College of St. Scholastica goes global with Massive Open Online Couses

More than 1,200 students, some from as far away as the East Coast and the Middle East, are enrolled in David Marc's health data analytics class. And his College of St. Scholastica classroom isn't even crowded.

Ryan Sandefer

More than 1,200 students, some from as far away as the East Coast and the Middle East, are enrolled in David Marc's health data analytics class. And his College of St. Scholastica classroom isn't even crowded.

That's because Marc's class is a MOOC -- Massive Open Online Couse -- offered by the Department of Health Information and Information Management. The students participate from dorm rooms, offices, coffee shops and libraries in all 50 states, Canada, India and the United Arab Emirates.

Marc, 29, an adjunct professor in the department, starts his day not in an office at the school, but at a computer at home.

"I wake up in the morning and I bring up the Blackboard page, and I answer any questions, read through the discussions," Marc said.

MOOCs are a relatively recent phenomenon in higher education. A year ago today, the New York Times labeled 2012 the "Year of the MOOC." The largest provider -- Coursera -- has drawn 5 million students, the Wall Street Journal reported last month.


MOOCs offer an opportunity for students of all descriptions -- whether seeking continuing education or an introduction to a new area of study or just curious -- to choose from an array of courses in multiple disciplines, occasionally from some of the top academics in their fields.

And they're free.

In the larger MOOC world, Marc's health analytics class isn't all that big. A "PBS NewsHour" report earlier this year told of one Duke University MOOC with 170,000 students and another at Stanford University with 160,000.

It's not even a record enrollment for St. Scholastica. Ryan Sandefer, chairman of the Health Information Department at the school, said an anatomy and physiology class last spring enrolled 1,600 students.

Health data analytics still might catch up, Sandefer said, because enrollment continues through Nov. 11, with 1,253 registered as of Friday afternoon. That's true even though the class already is underway. The

individualized nature of MOOCs allows for some flexibility in start and finish dates.

But the number already enrolled "far exceeded what we expected," Sandefer said. To put it in perspective, he noted that the total enrollment in all of St. Scholastica's traditional programs is only a little more than 4,000.

On the other hand, Sandefer knew there was some interest. St. Scholastica alumni had been telling him they needed help in the specialty. The ability to analyze data is rapidly becoming more important in the increasingly complex health-care world, Sandefer said.


Among other things, data analytics can be used to probe information about patients with a particular disease or to predict the course of a disease, Marc said. The subject will be "core content" in the health informatics master's degree program that St. Scholastica will launch in January, he said. Marc will direct that program.

MOOCs have been criticized for lackluster completion rates. The Wall Street Journal article reported that more than 90 percent fail to complete some of the MOOCs.

St. Scholastica courses are doing better than that so far, Sandefer said. In the anatomy and physiology MOOC, 31 percent finished, he said.

So far, 60 percent of the health analytics students have begun work on it, Sandefer said. The course must be completed by Dec. 7. Depending on the student, it's expected to take between 15 and 25 hours, according to the course syllabus.

Unlike many MOOCs, the health analytics class is approved for continuing education credits, Sandefer said. And unlike large-scale MOOCs offered by major universities, Marc's students have access to him. Some critics have pointed to teacher access and lack of credit as major shortcomings when it comes to MOOCs.

"They have my email address," Marc said. "They can contact me at any time and I do actually communicate with many of the students."

It takes him about 14 hours a week, said Marc, who also teaches traditional classes at St. Scholastica and is working on a doctorate at the University of Minnesota.

The students also benefit from online discussion forums in which they can share questions and answers with each other, he said.


Why, in the high-priced world of higher education, are MOOCs free?

For St. Scholastica, one motivation is to serve its alumni, Sandefer said. And as employees from a variety of firms take the class, St. Scholastica gets an edge in seeking internships and job placements for its students at those firms.

It also serves as a marketing tool for the school.

"Now there's 1,200 people, with a very small proportion of them knowing what the College of St. Scholastica was before," Sandefer said. "They will have now taken a class from us."

David Marc

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