MCC evolves with free online courses

CRYSTAL LAKE – McHenry County College’s newest course has nearly 420 students hailing from countries all over the world, including England, New Zealand, Australia and China.

An introductory chemistry course does not generally generate global interest, but it does when it is free and available to anyone who can access the Internet.

“Exploring Chemistry” is McHenry County College’s second foray into the fledgling field of Massive Open Online Courses – free courses that include online lectures, videos, forum discussions and a flexible schedule that allows students to complete work at their own pace.

As the only community college in Illinois to offer MOOCs and one of the few in the country, McHenry County College already has experienced success with the new teaching method.

Its first course, “Online Reputation for Career Success,” had more than 300 students enrolled the week before the course started and ended with an 11.4 percent completion rate, nearly double the average 6.8 percent completion rate most MOOCs experience.

“You need to really know the balance between credit course and a MOOC and offer something unique that the general public will want,” said Ray Lawson, director of online learning and educational technology for MCC.

Lawson said the college met that goal with its first offering as 72 percent of those enrolled had a college degree, showing that professionals and students wanted to learn about maintaining a strong online presence.

The introductory chemistry course also has a wide demographic with 27 percent in high school, 21 percent in college and 14 percent with a master’s degree. Lawson said the goal is to give the casually interested and aspiring students a foundation.

“A lot of people still don’t have the fundamental background they need in math and science and other courses when they come in,” Lawson said. “This prepares them for college credit courses.”

One challenge with massive open online courses is getting faculty on board, Lawson said. Many instructors are intrigued by the idea, he said, but concerned about the number of students and time commitment. He said courses are only three to four weeks, and features such as auto-graded quizzes and forum discussions keep the instructor’s workload in the program in check.

The instructor, along with the college, receives far more global exposure through the courses as well, Lawson said.

“Our name is going to go far beyond our national boundaries,” he said.

While enrollment is closed for the four-week “Exploring Chemistry” course, Lawson said he hopes to offer a writing, math and college success MOOC in the future.

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