The best-enrolled course at the University of Arizona this semester could be a virtual one.
Astronomy professor Chris Impey's MOOC, or Massive Online Open Course, has already signed up more than 1,000 students and it recently got a shout-out from Sports Illustrated, which listed "free online astronomy courses" as one of the three things you need to know about UA, in its primer on the "Sweet 16."
The UA is experimenting with MOOCs to gauge their popularity, and to figure out whether there is a model that would allow them to recoup the costs of running them and potentially make them available for course credit.
Katrina Miranda, an associate professor of chemistry at UA, is also developing a MOOC with a $50,000 grant from online giant Google.
UA administrators are uncertain whether more MOOCs are in the university's future.
"The bottom line is we don't know," said Gail Burd, vice provost for academic affairs.
MOOCs are great, but their completion rates are low and they are costly to create, Burd said.
Impey thinks MOOCs can eventually be offered at different levels. Those interested in simply learning about a subject could have free access to lectures and presentations without paying a fee.
The next level would be for "those with some professional reason for being interested in the content."
High school science teachers and planetarium employees, for instance, could complete the course, take a test and receive a completion certificate for a nominal cost.
For full, transferable university credit, you would need a secure method of evaluation, he said. The low-tech solution would involve testing centers, like those that administer SAT tests.
Impey said the companies that host MOOCs are also developing more high-tech methods, using webcams and "keystroke signatures" to insure that the person who signed up for the course actually completes it.
Impey, whose course is titled "Astronomy - State of the Art," said it is designed to attract the astronomy-savvy who want to explore "cutting-edge" topics, such as exoplanets and dark energy, but is accessible to anyone interested in the subject.
Feedback is an important part of the course, he said, and he's been fielding a dozen questions a day since the course started Monday.
Students are also exchanging ideas on the course's Facebook and Twitter sites. "Students are answering each other's questions thoughtfully," Impey said. It helps that many of those who signed up are amateur astronomers themselves, with a high degree of knowledge about the subject.
The course is global in reach, Impey said, with students from Brazil, India and elsewhere.
Impey's stature in the astronomical community and his ability to provide access to colleagues such as Roger Angel through interviews and guest lectures will help him "build the brand," he said.
"In this new marketplace, your brand is going to count," he said.
Impey sees a huge audience, especially among the estimated 1 million amateur astronomers out there.
MOOCs are "hugely scalable," said Impey, able to accommodate hundreds of thousands of users.
The trick is in keeping the educational experience high and finding ways to personally engage users.
Miranda, who will work with a team from Google this summer to develop a chemistry course for the fall, intends to create an online course that will bridge the gap between beginning and upper division courses.
Miranda said many students have "forgotten a lot of their general chemistry" by the time they take the specialty courses. She sees the class as a way to keep them interested and up to date.
UA Provost Andrew Comrie said the UA already makes wide use of distance learning and online courses. He characterized Impey's MOOC course as "jumping into the pool for us and letting us know how the water is."
MOOCs may not be an improvement over the online and distance-learning courses the UA already offers, but they are worth investigating, he said.
3 THINGS TO KNOW
Sports Illustrated picked three things people should know about the University of Arizona for its online intro to the Sweet 16 teams in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
It cited the UA's pep band and the fact that point guard Mark Lyons is the first player to go to consecutive Sweet 16 tournaments from different schools (he went last year with Xavier University.)
And it said: "The university offers free online astronomy courses. (No small giveaway for the school behind the Phoenix Mars mission.)"
Chris Impey, deputy head of the UA's astronomy department, said he's happy for the mention and not quibbling over the details.
It is "a" course, not "courses," and it is offered by his department, not by the Lunar and Planetary Lab, which ran the Phoenix Mars mission.
TAKING THE MOOC
Class started Monday, but you can still sign up and catch up by going to: www.udemy.com/astronomy-state-of-the-art/
Contact reporter Tom Beal at email@example.com or 573-4158.