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Is Acatar It?

10/22/2013

Inside Higher Ed.  October 22, 2013.  Carnegie Mellon University may have found a way to expand its reach in Acatar, a flipped-classroom platform provider that also helps institutions offer for-credit courses online. Early feedback from instructors has so far been positive, but the platform’s faculty-centric promises raise questions about its ability to scale.

Acatar is one part of Carnegie Mellon’s broad strategy to discover a financially sustainable model to expand its reach. The university has also developed Panopto, an online lecture capture platform, and owns the subsidiaries Clearmodel and iCarnegie Global Learning.

Acatar, which launched its Global Campus platform this month, stakes out a middle ground between residential and online courses -- an approach that follows Carnegie Mellon’s hesitation to embrace massive open online courses. Fundamentally, the company helps professors flip their courses, pushing lecture content online and freeing up classroom time for in-depth discussions or interactive sessions. Those courses can then be offered to online students, substituting physical classrooms for live sessions. Acatar can turn the content into a massive open online course, but the primary audience is local student.

Global Campus’s pilot features four credit-bearing courses in Carnegie Mellon’s hybrid master of science program in electrical and computer engineering, where students spend one semester online and two on campus. The launch also includes a partnership with the University of Pittsburgh and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities’ Research Centers in Minority Institutions Program. A professor at an Ivy League institution, whom an Acatar spokesman declined to identify, is testing the platform this fall.

Acatar has come a long way since February, when it declined to demonstrate its platform, but Carnegie Mellon Provost Mark Kamlet is not yet anointing Global Campus as the university’s featured product.

“We are receiving interest from organizations that want to partner with us, both to enhance their traditional courses and extend the reach of their programs across the world,” Kamlet, who also serves as the company’s non-executive chairman, said in a statement. “We are excited by the possibilities and believe Acatar will have a large impact on teaching and educational excellence for a variety of organizations.”

It takes about 22 weeks from when course developers first meet with a faculty member to when students find their desks for the first day of class. During those weeks, developers work with instructors to translate their teaching methods to a digital format.

“It’s very important to us, Acatar, that we’re good shepherds of the institutions we’re working with,” CEO Matthew H. Cooper said. “We don’t believe in taking control away from the faculty, diminishing the role of the faculty.”

The first four flipped courses show some signs of this process: In one recorded lecture, a professor used a document scanner in place of a blackboard, while another showed a professor making digital annotations on top of a slideshow presentation.

Acatar shoulders the initial investments -- $150,000, on average -- then charges the university a fixed rate based on course length and the number of students enrolled, among other factors. Cooper declined to get more specific, saying the cost will vary from case to case. “It’s very safe to say that we’re at about a third of the cost of some of the other online course providers,” he said.

That includes dodging the pitfalls that have doomed online course initiatives at other institutions. For example, Acatar hopes to avoid intellectual property rights disputes by following the policies its partner universities have in place.

At Carnegie Mellon, that means “if I were to get hit by a truck, they could not legally take my lectures and say ‘O.K., we’re going to keep offering this course,’” said Shawn Blanton, professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Blanton teaches digital systems testing and testable design -- one of the four courses available through Global Campus this semester. The course, which Blanton created 18 years ago, is being taught online for the first time ever. It represents the first time Blanton has ever flipped a classroom or experimented with online education.

“I did not want to do this, and I literally just told myself, 'I’m going to do this because I don’t want to do this,' ” Blanton said. “I thought it would be a ton of work, I thought it would never work -- and I’m pleasantly surprised.”

Despite Acatar’s goal of capturing individual professors’ teaching methods, Blanton and Jelena Kovačević, professor of biomedical engineering, both said adapting their lecturing styles came with some concessions. Blanton said he has worked to break his 80-minute lectures into 10-minute segments. He also moved the usual question-and-answer part of his lecture to the live sessions (using the videoconferencing tool Adobe Connect), but said the level of interaction is still somewhat stunted when students have to click a button to “raise their hand,” then be called on by a TA to participate.

“It’s those types of challenges that we didn’t anticipate that we’re working through,” Blanton said. “Either we’ll develop a behavior to cope with that shortcoming, or the technology will solve it.”

For Kovačević, the concessions don’t necessarily detract from the experience. The process, she said, is "not how to take the existing course and translate it to the platform. I think what’s needed to be done is to figure out what kind of tools technology offers you so you can do it better than before.”

Both courses enroll more between 15 and 20 residential students and a handful of distance learners: Blanton’s course has five; Kovačević’s, two. Halfway through her first semester teaching a flipped course, Kovačević said she does not think online-only students are faring any better or worse, since many residential students opt to sit in on a live session instead of going to class.

In comparison, Blanton said he could not yet determine if all students are receiving the same quality of education.

“It’s an open question. My data would just be a single data point,” Blanton said. “I don’t know if I attribute it to the newness.... It may be the case that inherently the student experience is going to be worse because [students are] simply not here.”

Yet Blanton will offer the course again in the spring, partly because of positive experiences like a recent late-night exam review session, with students in Pittsburgh and in India all meeting online to ask questions, share notes and study together.

“It was a better working environment than we’ve had for similar study sessions,” Blanton said. “We never did that even on campus.”