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March 15th, 2013 at 9:29 am

Massive open online courses are transforming higher education and science

MOOCs: Internet-based teaching programs are designed to handle thousands of students simultaneously.

Engineering, science, and technology have at the forefront of the massive open online course movement.  These classes also are providing fodder for scientific research on learning.




When campus president Wallace Loh walked into Juan Uriagereka’s office last August, he got right to the point. “We need courses for this thing — yesterday!”

Uriagereka, associate provost for faculty affairs at the University of Maryland in College Park, knew exactly what his boss meant. Campus administrators around the world had been buzzing for months about massive open online courses, or MOOCs:Internet-based teaching programs designed to handle thousands of students simultaneously, in part using the tactics of social-networking websites. To supplement video lectures, much of the learning comes from online comments, questions and discussions. Participants even mark one another’s tests.

MOOCs had exploded into the academic consciousness in summer 2011, when a free artificial-intelligence course offered by Stanford University in California attracted 160,000 students from around the world — 23,000 of whom finished it. Now, Coursera in Mountain View, California — one of the three researcher-led start-up companies actively developing MOOCs — was inviting the University of Maryland to submit up to five courses for broadcast on its software platform. Loh wanted in. “He was very clear,” says Uriagereka. “We needed to be a part of this.”

Similar conversations have been taking place at major universities around the world, as dozens — 74, at the last count — rush to sign up. Science, engineering and technology courses have been in the vanguard of the movement, but offerings in management, humanities and the arts are growing in popularity (see ‘MOOCs rising’). “In 25 years of observing higher education, I’ve never seen anything move this fast,” says Mitchell Stevens, a sociologist at Stanford and one of the leaders of an ongoing, campus-wide discussion series known as Education’s Digital Future.

The ferment is attributable in part to MOOCs hitting at exactly the right time. Bricks-and-mortar campuses are unlikely to keep up with the demand for advanced education: according to one widely quoted calculation, the world would have to construct more than four new 30,000-student universities per week to accommodate the children who will reach enrollment age by 2025 (, let alone the millions of adults looking for further education or career training. Colleges and universities are also under tremendous financial pressure, especially in the United States, where rocketing tuition fees and ever-expanding student debt have resulted in a backlash from politicians, parents and students demanding to know what their money is going towards.

When MOOCs came along, says Chris Dede, who studies educational technologies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, they promised to solve these problems by radically expanding the reach of existing campuses while streamlining the workload for educators — and universities seized on them as the next big thing.

There is reason to hope that this is a positive development, says Roy Pea, who heads a Stanford center that studies how people use technology. MOOCs, which have incorporated decades of research on how students learn best, could free faculty members from the drudgery of repetitive introductory lectures. What’s more, they can record online students’ every mouse click, an ability that promises to transform education research by generating data that could improve teaching in the future. “We can have microanalytics on every paper, every test, right down to what media each student prefers,” says Pea.

MOOC companies still face challenges, such as dealing with low course-completion rates and proving that they can make profit. And they have a lot of convincing to do among faculty members, says Uriagereka. “Some salivate and can’t wait to be a part of it,” he says, noting that his university had 20 volunteers for its 5 inaugural MOOCs. “Others say, ‘Wait a minute. How do we preserve quality? How do we connect with students?’”

Large-scale pedagogy
MOOCs are largely a product of one corridor in the Stanford computer-science department, where the offices of Andrew Ng, Daphne Koller and Sebastian Thrun are just a few steps apart. But they are also the fruit of research dating back to at least the 1990s, when the explosive worldwide growth of the Internet inspired a multitude of efforts to exploit it for education. Campus administrators tended to regard such projects as a sideshow — the higher-education financial crunch was not quite as serious back then — so most experiments were the work of committed individuals, departments or research centers. But with the relentless advance of technologies such as broadband, social networking and smart phones, researchers’ interest continued to grow.

Ng got involved in 2007 because he wanted to bring Stanford-quality teaching to “the people who would never be able to come to Stanford”, he says. Following a path blazed by the open-source software movement, and by earlier open-source education initiatives, he started a project to post online free lecture videos and handouts for ten of Stanford’s most popular engineering courses. His approach was fairly crude, he admits: just record the lectures, put them online and hope for the best. But to his astonishment, strangers started coming up to him and saying, “Are you Professor Ng? I’ve been taking machine learning with you!” He began to grasp how far online courses could reach, and started working on a scaled-up version of his system. “When one professor can teach 50,000 people,” he says, “it alters the economics of education.”

One of the many people he talked to about his work was Koller, who began developing her own online-education system in 2009. Whereas Ng looked outwards, Koller wanted to look inwards and reform Stanford’s teaching on-campus. She particularly wanted to promote ‘flipping’, a decade-old innovation in which students listen to lectures at home and do their ‘homework’ in class with their teachers, focusing on the most difficult aspects or discussing a concept’s wider implications. This lets the instructors concentrate on the parts of teaching most of them enjoy — interacting with the students — and relieves them of the repetitive lecturing that they often dislike.

Koller also wanted to incorporate insights from the many studies showing that passively listening to a lecture is a terrible way to learn (F. I. M. Craik and R. S. Lockhart J. Verb. Learn. Verb. Behav. 11, 671–684; 1972). Following an approach pioneered by other online developers over the previous decade, Koller broke each video into 8–10-minute segments separated by pauses in which students have to answer questions or solve a problem. The idea was to get them to think about what they had learned; the deeper their engagement, studies showed, the better their retention.

Finally, to encourage greater interaction among the students themselves, Koller took a cue from social-networking sites such as Facebook and gave her system an online discussion forum. As Ng explains, the idea was to extend what happens in a face-to-face study group: “Students sit with their best friends, they work on problems together, they critique each others’ solutions — lots of pedagogical studies show that these more interactive modes of student engagement result in better student learning.”

Photo credit: Forbes

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