MOOCs: Reaching the Masses in Higher Education

Written by Joy Ma

What’s a MOOC? Here’s why MOOCs matter and why you should care.

Free education for all. Yes, it is possible to an extent — thanks to technology.

Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were all the rage at the beginning of the year. That’s when startup P2PU joined Coursera, EdX and Udacity to deliver education to everyone who wanted it.

It’s a bit quieter now on the MOOC front but MOOC sites are on their way to the next phase of growth and implementation.

I talked to Charles Severance about MOOCs. He’s a clinical associate professor who teaches in the School of Information at the University of Michigan.

He said opinions range widely on what MOOCs are– wildly transformational, the next big thing or just an idealistic effort.

It’s heady times for the online higher education space. And it’s way too early to call a winner.

Let’s face it, education is a huge part of everyone’s life. In a first world country, as an adult you will have had 16 years of education if you went to college. More if you went post graduate. In a short few years, MOOCs, an almost sci-fi like concept when it first came up in the 1960s have become wildly popular with 40,000 students attending a single class. With Ivy League universities joining in there’s a serious tenor to becoming more than just an extension of a brand and really having the influence to bring education to whoever wants it.

What are MOOCs offering now that they are a little older? I took a look at the pure play MOOCs and this is how they stack up.

Coursera, offers 197 courses from 33 universities in categories such as Biology & Life Sciences, Business & Management, Computer Science: Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Vision, Computer Science: Programming & Software Engineering, Computer Science: Systems, Security, Networking, Computer Science: Theory, Economics & Finance, Education, Electrical and Materials Engineering, Food and Nutrition, Health and Society & Medical Ethics, Humanities, Information, Technology, and Design, Mathematics, Medicine, Music, Film, and Audio Engineering, Physical & Earth Sciences, Social Sciences, Statistics, Data Analysis, and Scientific Computing.

P2PU says its learning for everyone, by everyone, about almost anything. The Peer 2 Peer University is literally that: a platform for people to teach and educate their peers in an open environment. Schools here include Social Innovation, Mathematical Future, School of Webcraft, School of Education, School Of Open and School Of Data.

Udacity is a different spin on the same concept: higher education without the fees. The beginner, intermediate and advanced courses are taught by area experts such as, Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun, and cover tech, programming and science. Instead of receiving a grade or credit students were reviewed against the work of other students and given a statement of accomplishment.

Academic Room levels the playing field by giving access to people to online educational resources around the world. It focuses on multidisciplinary exchange within the academic community. The main disciplines are Humanities, Social Sciences, Physical Sciences, Life Sciences and Healthcare.

edX began as a collaboration for an online learning experience between Harvard University and MIT. Students can learn from the two universities’ faculty as long as they have access a computer and an internet connection. Disciplines cover physical science, tech, computer science, and artificial intelligence.

I attended a college with tiny classes in NYC. Twenty students and we were gasping for air. I have yet to take a MOOC and as I am waiting for the Coursera course on Energy 101, I asked Coursera lecturer Charles Severance what he’s seeing in this new frontier of online education. Chuck taught a class called “Internet History, Technology and Security” on Coursera.

For Chuck these classes with close to 40,000 students can be hard to compare with a classroom experience. “I think that the students (like me) see this as a new form with significant advantages and disadvantages that are to be explored.

“Probably the only time a comparison with a normal classroom course comes into play is when I have a teacher in the class as a student and I end up in some discussion about the policies/approaches for the course.  Typical topics are things like ‘What should the plagiarism penalty be?’ or should students be able to request that grades assigned through a peer-grading process be reviewed by the ‘teaching staff’ if the student feels that the peer-grading was unfair.”

Some students, who are teachers, feel that the gap between a physical class and a MOOC should be small. Of his students Chuck says, “They have strong feelings about these policies topics (such as peer review). They talk about this ‘in their class’. I see it as evidence that they expect things should function roughly the same in a 40,000 student non-credit course as they function in a 100 student course for credit.”  For Chuck it is a new form of education that takes inspiration from the previous forms, but still needs to find its own place in teaching.

I asked Linda Feng who took some MOOCs including one of Dr. Chuck’s to describe what it’s like being in a class this large and what she got out of it. The experience varied largely by the instructor and the methods used for the lecture. A talking head was less easy to stay with. She found Dr. Chuck’s lectures more engaging “because he mixed his segments with other videos of key Internet pioneers, I never felt bored and found it much easier to absorb the material.”

On homework the courses were geared to the student’s commitment. “Each class had a different level of homework assignment expectation.  In Dr. Chuck’s course students were able to contribute at their own level of commitment.  Those who wanted to do the extra credit writing assignment could do so, while those who didn’t still got a lot from the course by watching the lectures and doing the quizzes,” says Linda.

Since the courses are free, what’s in it for the universities who are partnering with the sites? Are they giving away their expertise with the hope some students will convert to paying students? Chuck’s response on this, “It is a tremendous feather in your cap to get this much focus and attention from students in a MOOC. If a University of Michigan professor impresses 40,000 students as bright and talented and a good teacher–it helps the image of a world-class university.  It is a way of sharing the very bright faculty members far more broadly without changing our on-campus programs.”

One of the longer term aspects MOOC organizations are looking for is certification. Would a MOOC certificate ever stack up favorably against a degree from a traditional college? Education for the sake of learning is great until you are looking for a job. What would it take tech companies to hire staff based on the MOOCs they took? Chuck’s response shows it’s still very early days for MOOCs, “It will be a long time (perhaps never) before a set of certificates is a substitute for a residential Bachelor’s degree. A degree is so much more than a transcript of courses you took and the grades you received. But I think that this is a short-term.

“At some point the certificates will become valuable in their own right—not as a replacement for a degree but as evidence of some set of skills.”

If there’s one thing that we all love about the Internet it is the fact that it is access to information. Plagiarism flourishes in this open platform. It could prove to be a hurdle for some MOOC institutions. This came up in my conversation with Chuck. Of this he said, “Initially, there will be well-publicized and organized cheating / plagiarism cases that appear to render the certificates useless.  But I think that after a time we will see that while people may try to take a short cut to getting a few pieces of paper, the real value will be when you have taken 8-10 courses over time in a related area with increasing difficulty.  After a while folks will stop spending all their time figuring out how to chest or game the system and instead will start learning.   I think the addition of a few certified exams in the process will make it feel better to all involved.   Perhaps getting a ‘pass’ in a Coursera course qualifies you to take a certification exam or something similar.

“The key here will be time passing.  I think that in time folks will realize that a certificate that was earned with no learning will not be too valuable.”

One unifying element of the all the MOOCs, besides attending a class with a cast of thousands, was the love of learning by its founders. At his book event last month, Sal Khan, of Khan Academy, said of his organization that it targeted the gaps in education for school age children. Self-paced learning and remedial programs helped people achieve a deeper understanding of topics that allowed them to go a lot further. Sal started Khan Academy to tutor his cousin who was living in the other end of the country in Math. Khan Academy had found that missing piece that students with or without different learning styles around the country face every day.

MOOCs are taking off in a big way now. The obvious answers for this would be better technology, a need for different methods for education in a changing world, and busy students who want to advance. Chuck agreed that advanced tech is key. “In a sense, NetFlix, YouTube, and others prove we can deliver HD video to a large fraction of the world’s population. All of a sudden, I can create high fidelity representations of my classroom materials and deliver them to 40,000 students—and have it work. If you go back 10 years, we needed to ‘squeeze’ out teaching into something like 320 X 240 pixels—and that was simply painful and you lost too much in the ‘squeezing’.  Solving the technology problem to deliver HD video at scale simply means that we have started the process to understand what we will do with this new technology.”

This limits access to MOOC for those who have a computer and a stable Internet connection. In bringing access to higher education to the public, we are also separating ourselves from those who do not have access to the technology.

Finally, Chuck on where MOOCs are going, “Folks who have some ‘conclusion’ about what MOOCs mean are wrong.  Every time we teach another MOOC we learn something new.  There is no question that what we are doing is very cool—but it is very early days and we are learning rapidly.”

Have you taken a MOOC course? Will you? Let us know what you think.