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WVU tapping into movement of free open online courses

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Starting next week, anyone in the world can take classes with real West Virginia University professors.

They won't come with college credit. But there's no homework, no tests, and no charge.

Following a movement spreading rapidly through universities and colleges recently, WVU is exploring the concept of massive open online courses.

Also known as "MOOCs," the courses are open to anyone in the world with an Internet connection and a willingness to learn, said Nick Bowman, an assistant professor of communication studies at WVU.

"What differentiates a MOOC from the classroom is the student is on their own," Bowman said Wednesday in a phone interview. "They can do as much or as little as they like. We just make ourselves accessible."

Access to higher education is a problem in West Virginia. WVU might be too expensive for a student, or Morgantown could be too far away, Bowman said. But with a MOOC, anyone in the world can see what universities have to offer.

That's important for several reasons -- people enrolled in the class could realize they enjoy the topic, to the point where they consider eventually enrolling in college, Bowman said. It also shows the outside world what professors are up to.

Bowman likened the course to the Philadelphia Eagles football team hosting a camp for inner-city children. It's no skin off the team's back to hold the camp, but it also lets the students learn the basics from experts.

"It's really more about, we're the people in charge of this stuff," Bowman said. "If we don't do it, who will? If we don't give this information, it's going to come from someone who's not as good at it."

Bowman can't get enough social media. He monitors it constantly, but he's studied it extensively in an academic setting as well. Learning the ins and outs of the technology and understanding its role in today's society is an important topic geared especially well for a MOOC, he explained.

It's a way for academia to directly respond to current events. Bowman cited a story receiving national attention: Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o and his controversial online relationship.

"Part of what sparks this formula was cases like that. And we're going to talk about that," Bowman said. "When those things happen, we can actually have a response and educate people."

Bowman is teaching a MOOC titled "Learning to cope with our robot overlords." The course examines the daily interaction of people and technology. Students interested in the course register online, providing an age, gender and location.

After registering, the student has access to a Web page. The page offers access to a series of lectures Bowman has videotaped and uploaded to YouTube. There are also PowerPoint presentations and links for other pertinent information.

MOOCs rely heavily on interaction among participants: Bowman said he's more of a discussion moderator than a teacher. At the start of a class students will watch one of his videos, which last 10 to 25 minutes.

The lectures include questions and talking points, and students use the website or Twitter to discuss the ideas brought up during the class. They can ask questions of other students or Bowman during the event.

Everyone benefits from that discussion, including Bowman. It's a way for him to see how what he teaches is being used in the real world.

"You have a family of four and have four kids on Facebook. You probably have some unique experiences that I don't have," Bowman said. "In a way it really is 'Hey, come play with Dr. Bowman for a week.'"

He's one of four professors offering a MOOC through WVU. Starting Monday, Bowman's class lasts six days. The first two are devoted to lecture and discussion.

On Wednesday Bowman plans a "tweet up" during which students can interact with him on Twitter for a live office-hour session. More class is slated for Thursday and Friday, with another tweet up rounding things out on Saturday.

People don't need to "attend" class each day; the information is available in a variety of mediums on the course website, Bowman said.

Three other professors are planning similar courses in February. Starting Feb. 11, students can learn about online relationships in a course entitled "Love at First Like." A class on cyber bullying is slated for the week of Feb. 18, and a course called "Understanding and Conquering Technology Overload" is scheduled to start Feb. 25.

The courses are free because they don't cost WVU anything apart from time, Bowman said. Bowman said the courses are work intensive, but they go toward the idea that public universities exist to serve the community as a whole. Tuition helps the university stay afloat, and so the university serves its students. But so do tax dollars, Bowman said. The courses are an experiment, but Bowman is optimistic they'll be a success. He had heard several hundred people already were kicking around the idea of registering, including some from South America and Asia.

He's happy about the international connection but hopes students considering college in West Virginia check out the courses as well.

"The kids of coal miner families aren't going into the mine," Bowman said. "You're seeing this huge shift in how people make their money. There's huge disconnect between Morgantown and the rest of the state. This closes that disconnect."

Anyone interested in participating can register at During the courses, Bowman and students will use #WVUCommMOOC for their Twitter discussions.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or Follow him at



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