NUS goes big on online courses

NUS goes big on online courses
A class of NSmen, who are waiting to enter NUS after coming out of the army, during a tutorial on chemical engineering principle.

The National University of Singapore (NUS), one of two local universities to have ventured into mass online learning, is forging ahead in a big way to boost such efforts.

It is increasing the number of online courses for three groups: its students, national servicemen who will soon be entering the university, and members of the public.

Provost Tan Eng Chye told The Sunday Times that the university will put up 14 more courses online for its undergraduates from now to next year, up from the current two.

These will range from modules in engineering and business to literature and computing.

The effort is part of NUS' plans to extend its flipped classroom approach in which students learn from pre-recorded lectures and other material before going to class for in-depth discussions and projects.

Online courses are especially valuable given that large classes - of several hundred students each - make up about one in five of all courses available, said Professor Tan. Some 2,000 modules are offered every semester.

There are also plans to start three to four more modules for national servicemen entering NUS next year, in addition to the eight it started this year.

Prof Tan said the online ventures have been "successful", although the university is also doing research on the effectiveness of online learning.

Some faculty members teaching online courses have collected feedback from students, and there is a growing sense that they see the value of mixing classroom teaching with online learning, he noted.

NUS also offers courses on United States-based education platform Coursera, and over 90 per cent of the 1,400 learners rated their overall experience as good, very good or excellent in a post-course survey, adding that the pacing and workload of the courses was "just right".

"It's a totally different way of thinking about teaching, compared to going to class and doing a one- hour lecture," said Prof Tan.

"It's good that our colleagues are experiencing this and hopefully refining and sharing their experience."

In January, more than 200 NSmen got a headstart when they took the first batch of eight modules offered exclusively to them online by NUS - ahead of term in August.

About one-third of them chose to enrol in more than one module.

NSman Jeremy Wee, 21, who is taking three modules - engineering, science and computing - said: "I figured my brain needed a warm-up after spending two years in NS, and I could graduate earlier."

Assistant professor Ben Leong, who teaches the popular programming methodology module, said he uses the tactic of "gamification" - turning tasks into missions and quests, complete with scores - to engage students online.

"It's to make up for the difficulty of not being able to interact with them face-to-face," he said.

Writing scripts, recording and editing video snippets for online courses can take hours or even a full day.

But faculty members are seeing the benefits.

Said Dr Kanokorn Photinon, who has 25 NSmen enrolled in her engineering module: "Although it was painfully tedious to record the videos, it's still better than repeating myself 10 times in a lecture. Also I can achieve a lot more with more quality time in classrooms."

The science faculty's Dr Adrian Lee, who started recording online "playlists" of lectures for his physical chemistry module in 2012, said a survey showed about 63 per cent of his students prefer going online to attending lectures.

More time could be spent on small-group learning and solving problems together in class, he said.

"It's not that technology is replacing the learning. (It) is enabling better learning to occur."

More people signing up

The National University of Singapore (NUS), the first university here to tie up with United States-based education provider Coursera, offered three courses to the public this year.

Each course - consisting of six to eight weeks of video presentations, exercises, quizzes and peer-to-peer assessment - attracted 35,000 to 39,000 sign-ups.

Of the initial enrolment, 10 to 20 per cent completed the first two courses which started in January - entitled "Unpredictable? Randomness, Chance And Free Will" and "Write Like Mozart: An Introduction To Classical Music Composition".

This figure points to a "healthy retention rate", said NUS provost Tan Eng Chye.

Low completion rates - 10 per cent or lower - are typical of massive open online courses, according to studies.

Most students - about 35 per cent - for both courses were from the United States.

Some 2 per cent came from Singapore.

Data for the third online course offered, a philosophy module on reason and persuasion, is still being collected, and the university is considering offering more courses for the public.

Said Associate Provost of Undergraduate Education Chng Huang Hoon: "Our students are so savvy and their preferred platform tends to be a mobile (phone) or tablet. As instructors, we need to be in sync with those kinds of trends."

In February, Nanyang Technological University also launched its first course on Coursera.

In all, some 55,000 people in Singapore have signed up with Coursera, from just 15,000 last year.

This article was published on May 4 in The Straits Times.

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