In January, more than 1,900 virtual classmates began solving linear equations and adding exponents in UW-La Crosse’s first massive open online course (MOOC). It was a new venture for UW-La Crosse and the University of Wisconsin System.

“We learned a great deal, we believe that a large number of students learned some or all of what we intended to teach, and we are planning to do it again,” says Bob Hoar, UW-L professor of mathematics and associate vice chancellor for Academic Affairs.

The direct instruction in the seven-week MOOC ended in March, yet, students can continue to complete it at their own pace online for up to five years. Its creators anticipate offering more college readiness MOOCs during spring semesters. Yet, questions still linger about how such massive courses, offered for free, will evolve and be sustainable.

A MOOC is a free course open to anyone with an Internet connection. The creation of these online courses is taking hold at colleges across the country with the potential to transform higher education. UW-L’s course, the first MOOC in the UW System, was designed to prepare students for college level math and science courses so they can enter college and graduate in higher numbers, in less time and at lower costs. The development was supported, in part, by a $50,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Hoar says MOOCs will be a useful item in the toolbox to support teaching and learning, along with traditional courses, small online courses, laboratories and independent study. But it is not yet clear if MOOCs will be a major tool or a specialty tool, he says. As faculty continue to study and administer MOOCs, Hoar is hopeful for more answers.

“It will likely prove to be a good format for a segment of the population and for a segment of the curriculum,” explains Hoar. “It is too soon to tell how large these two segments will turn out to be.”

Early Learning outcomes positive

One of the primary challenges of MOOCs, says Hoar, is the cost associated with maintaining a level of support needed to offer a successful MOOC. The results of a FastTrack pilot program at UW-L in July 2012 showed that learning outcomes can be achieved in an online environment with a good level of student-to-instructor interaction. All but one of the program participants improved his or her test scores to the point where they could enter college-level math and science courses. In UW-L’s MOOC, they attempted to offer similar student-to-instructor interaction, and with the large numbers, they were still able to meet the needs of students.

“Our goal with the College Readiness Math MOOC was to test a theory — to see if we could expand the impact of the FastTrack program from dozens to hundreds,” says Hoar. “We are seeing that many participants are making it to the end of the course, and that some did not need all that we included in the course.”

MOOCs pose other concerns besides cost. For instance, it’s typical that only a small percentage of those who enroll in a MOOC complete it. Such trends are evidence that the format does not, for many, eliminate the need for the more structured traditional classroom setting, says Hoar.

“That is not to imply; however, that MOOCs do not help many others. Those who have passed are not the only ones who gain knowledge,” says Hoar. “Many who do not pass may still gain from the experience.”

Now nearly 300 people have indicated interest in a future MOOC offering, says Hoar. This summer, UW-L faculty and staff aim to open the MOOC again along with the FastTrack program. UW-L is also working with UW System to align UW-L’s MOOC with the Wisconsin Math Placement Test with the hope of offering it every spring and marketing it to students planning to study on a UW campus.

Sharing the power of MOOCs

As UW-L faculty and staff learn about the MOOC experience, they’ve been eager to share it with others. Members of the UW System Board of Regents watched a video presentation of UW-L’s MOOC during a visit to campus in early April and faculty and staff fielded questions on their progress. Jim Jorstad, director of Information Technology Services/Academic Technologies, is web streaming a number of programs worldwide to help explain what a MOOC is, how it can be used, and how it could transform education.

Hoar and Jorstad presented a live webinar focusing on core MOOC concepts at the corporate headquarters of Sonic Foundry in Madison later in the month. More than 1,200 on-line viewers from across the globe participated and posed questions, one of the largest on-line web streaming international audiences Sonic Foundry has ever sponsored.

“The key for any institution is to promote the MOOC concept, but also to determine if it can be scalable, sustainable, and if it can profitable,” stressed Jorstad.

A team of dedicated faculty, staff, and students was key to UW-L’s successful MOOC, says Hoar.

“The technology that drives a MOOC is important, but without the right team to select the content, develop the learning tools, set up the learning environment, provide instruction, and support student learning, success is unlikely,” he says.

The core team that created of UW-L’s first MOOC:

  • Maggie McHugh, associate lecturer in the Mathematics Department and director of UW-L’s Murphy Learning Center. McHugh was the primary MOOC instructor.
  • Jennifer Kosiak, associate professor of mathematics and recipient of the Student Wisconsin Education Association Teacher Educator of the Year Award and 2012 Regents Teaching Excellence Award. 
  • Robert Hoar, professor of mathematics and associate vice chancellor for Academic Affairs and director of the UW System Institute for Innovation in Undergraduate Research and Learning (IIURL).
  • Cari Mathwig Ramseier, member of Academic Technology Services, supports the campus-wide learning management system and developed (and supported) the MOOC course site.
  • Jim Sobota, professor emeritus of mathematics, served as the project’s quality control supervisor.
  • Robert Allen, associate professor of mathematics, Outstanding Professor of the Year, Residence Life 2012, developed and maintained the online math homework system used in the course.


UW-L’s MOOC was featured in MOOC News & Reviews. Read the two-part story.

professor and business leaders host live webinar

Bob Hoar, far right, math professor at the UW-L, and Jim Jorstad, middle, director of ITS/Academic Technologies, presented a live webinar at the corporate headquarters of Sonic Foundry in Madison. Sean Brown, vice president of education at Sonic Foundry, moderated the event, with over 1,200 online viewers from across the globe participating and asking questions.