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USM online learning platform surpasses 1 million enrollments

“This is a growing segment of higher education,” says MJ Bishop, associate vice chancellor and director of the USM Kirwan Center. “We’re testing the waters of what it means to teach and learn at scale.” (Submitted Photo0

A little over a year after the coronavirus pandemic forced educational institutions online, the University System of Maryland Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation’s online education platform, USMx, surpassed 1 million enrollments.

“I never thought we’d get to that number as quickly as we did,” said MJ Bishop, the associate vice chancellor and director of the USM Kirwan Center.

The platform is hosted by edX, a Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, provider developed by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. USM was the second state university system in the country to join edX, which allows the system’s institutions to offer courses and micro-degree programs online and at scale.

When USMx launched in 2016, no one really knew what to expect, said Bishop, but as students turned to the platform to add skills to their portfolios and enhance their job opportunities, it became clear that MOOCs met a demand.

The education technology company 2U’s recent announcement of its acquisition of the edX platform is yet another sign of the expanding education landscape. Bishop is cautiously hopeful about this deal and its ability to continue to provide students with a broad range of learning opportunities.

“We originally joined edX because it was a nonprofit,” she said. “We’ll be monitoring the situation to make sure it doesn’t become profiteering.”

Enrollment in online learning opportunities increased over the pandemic, as students and returning learners looked to supplement their education and skill sets. Across the edX platform, enrollment in courses increased from 75 million in 2019 to 110 million in 2020.

USMx saw average course enrollments increase around 10%, and enrollments in popular courses, like the University of Maryland, College Park’s certificate programs “Agile Project Management” and “Product Management,” increased by around 15%, according to Paul Walsh, the USMx program director. The University of Maryland, Global Campus’s “Instructional Design and Technology” program also saw a boost in enrollment as institutions shifted to remote learning and teachers prepared for online instruction.

MOOCs are designed so that students can use the skills they learned through the course at their job the next day. Successful MOOCs are aimed at needs within the current workforce.

“A good MOOC is actionable,” Walsh said.

Since MOOCs are focused primarily on content delivery rather than collaboration with faculty, the links between course objectives and activities need to be clear for self-teaching. Courses often include built-in guideposts that signal to students when upcoming topics might contain intellectually challenging material or take longer to complete.

USMx courses are also fully accessible and include features like closed captioning and image tagging so that everyone can benefit from online learning.

USM institutions work with the Kirwan Center to determine demand for a specific course they would like to offer through USMx. If a university wants to offer a course that already exists, the Kirwan Center works with the university to fine-tune the content of the course to make it complementary to an existing program and not a direct competitor.

Around 80-90% of students audit courses through USMx, but those who are seeking a certificate – called ‘verified learners’ – pay a fee for the programs they undertake. Those students are placed into a private online class within the MOOC and work directly with faculty through graded assignments and exams. Students can also earn professional certificate through multi-course program offerings.

Some universities, like the University of Maryland, Global Campus, really embraced the certificate-seeking USMx program opportunity. In 2017, UMGC launched four “MicroMasters” programs, where students take three or four courses of a typical UMGC Master’s program through USMx. Upon completion of those courses, the MicroMasters certificate may be applied towards the full master’s program in that subject at UMGC.

UMGC currently offers two MicroMasters courses and has seen 170 students who have completed a MicroMasters matriculate into a UMGC Master’s degree program.

“Joining edX was a natural extension of UMGC’s mission as an open access, online university dedicated to supporting adult learners,” said Kate Cardin, senior director of curriculum design at UMGC. “Our institution has a long history of meeting learners wherever they are – in the world, in their careers, and in their academic journey – and using innovative technologies to do so.”

USM institutions continue to update course and program offerings through USMx to meet student demand. As online learning expands, the education landscape will continue to change, as evidenced by the increased interest in online learning and skill-building

“This is a growing segment of higher education,” Bishop said. “We’re testing the waters of what it means to teach and learn at scale.”