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The Virtual Classroom Revolution

08/01/2013
Amy R. Volpert

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are changing the way we think about education. But many issues still need to be resolved in this evolving field. Take a trip inside today’s "virtual classroom". Learn more...


Some would have thought the class had to be near capacity: 155,000 students all enrolled in a single course called Circuits and Electronics. How many more could possibly sign up? But the lectures were not taking place in a giant soccer stadium or spread across different months to accommodate all the students. There weren’t hundreds of TAs for smaller sessions either. No, the instructional material, the students and the instructor all inhabited a new arena of virtual education: the massive open online course (MOOC).

For today’s scientist, the growth of interdisciplinary research has created the need for continuing education. But it’s hard to spend 8 or 10 or 12 hours in the lab only to turn around and spend additional hours in a traditional lecture hall—Enter the MOOC.

MOOCs give students and researchers access to a wide range of courses and course content, much of which may not be available locally, and also provide the opportunity to learn from instructors at top tier universities. Without the traditional enrollment limits of other courses, MOOCs offer a new experience for both students and professors. “What I didn’t anticipate is how much I was going to just absolutely love doing this,” notes Mohamed Noor, a professor at Duke University who teaches a popular MOOC entitled Introduction to Genetics and Evolution.

MOOCing the Classroom

Noor’s course has been run twice through the rapidly growing, MOOC platform Coursera, generating enrollments of ~30,000 for each iteration. It will be offered again in January 2014 as part of Coursera’s new Signature Track, an option allowing students to earn a Verified Certificate rather than the standard Statement of Accomplishment normally granted to those completing the online course.

A commercial company, Coursera is perhaps the most well-known MOOC provider, offering the most courses—over 400—from more than 80 colleges and universities. The platform is supported by funding in excess of $65 million from venture capital firms, educational investment firms, the World Bank, its university partners, and other sources. Coursera’s numbers might surprise those not aware of the interest in MOOCs at the moment: over 4 million students have enrolled in the platform’s courses, with 180,000 taking part in the most popular course.

But Coursera is not the only platform in the MOOC world. Another major player is edX, the MOOC provider that delivered the Circuits and Electronics course to 155,000 students. A non-profit initiative founded by MIT and Harvard with $33 million in funding, one of edX’s main goals, in addition to providing online learning, is “conducting and publishing significant research on how students learn.” The open-source platform offers fewer courses than Coursera—currently 56 from 28 XConsortium college and university partners—but is also growing quickly, having enrolled its millionth student in June, 2013.

As the number and range of MOOC course grows, one recurring question has been whether a student can earn college credit through these platforms. In February, the American Council on Education recommended five Coursera courses for credit, but it remains to be seen if universities are ready to award such credits. And this question is closely tied to the challenge of financially sustaining MOOCs in the long-term through fees for services such as proctored exams and Verified Certificates. Coursera is exploring various means of generating revenue in the future, including charging universities for course materials or for each student at that school enrolled in certain courses. Although not-for-profit, edX aims to be financially sustainable; however, it is currently not clear how revenue will be generated or if any universities plan to award credit for edX courses.

The New Lecture Hall

Those unfamiliar with the technology and expertise required to produce a MOOC may wonder why commercial platforms such as Coursera have yet to turn a profit. But if simply videotaping a few traditional on-campus lectures and posting those videos on a website were all that was necessary to produce a MOOC, anyone could do it. Adapting traditional courses for online instruction requires restructuring lectures, creating homework and exams that are compatible with a web-based user interface for automated grading, and establishing a mechanism for students to ask questions and get help.

Kristin Sainani, a clinical assistant professor with the Department of Health Research and Policy at Stanford University, has had the unusual experience of teaching two MOOCs addressing very different skill sets: science writing and statistics. Unlike most MOOCs, Sainani’s course Writing in the Sciences, offered through Coursera, required more subjective grading of assignments. She was able to accomplish this by including peer-editing and assessment (peer-to-peer learning) in the course, where each student’s writing assignment was graded by 3-5 classmates.

In contrast, Sainani’s recently launched Statistics in Medicine course provided by Stanford’s own online education initiative uses automated grading. That is not to say there were no technical problems. According to Sainani, there “are still some issues with autograding of numerical answers, because even there you can round wrong. But it’s not as big as an issue [as with the writing course] because numbers are a lot easier than words.”

For those accustomed to sitting in a classroom for 1-2 hour lectures, MOOCs can take some getting used to. Lectures are usually divided into 5–15 minutes chunks, in some cases with questions or short exercises imbedded into to the videos. “I had to go through my lectures and bucket them into smaller chunks. I think it does force you to be a little more efficient,” explains Sainani. Noor went through a similar process: “In the class, I would frequently talk for probably about an hour. For this, I broke it down to on average to probably something like 15 minutes or so. But that wasn’t very hard; it actually followed fairly naturally from the material itself. There were natural breaks that work fairly well.”

Through participating in several MOOCs as a student, Noor has seen the value of shorter lecture segments from a different perspective. “Now that I’ve taken a couple of MOOCs, I remember that if there was a nine minute segment, I nearly always just clicked right on it; if there was a 20 minute one, [I’d think] I’ll do it tomorrow.”

Yet another challenge when developing a MOOC is providing students with assistance when questions on the material come up. The most common solution to this problem is the use of discussion forums for each course. Although the instructor or a TA may log in to the forums on a regular basis, other students often are able to provide useful answers and advice more quickly. “In the writing course, I actually thought in the discussion forums that the students actually did a pretty good job responding to each other. Some of them asked really good questions too…with so many people you’re bound to get some really thoughtful questions,” says Sainani.

One unique resource that has emerged for courses run multiple times really impressed Noor: “In the second iteration of my class, I had these people referred to as ‘community TAs’. These were people who took the class the first iteration, and they were volunteering to come back. They were phenomenal! I don’t think any question went unanswered for a day, ever.”

No More Universities?—Not so Fast

Still, the big challenges for Coursera, edX, and other MOOC providers remain how to become financially self-sustaining and provide meaningful certification that universities and employers will recognize. MOOC providers also have to battle the perception that they are actively competing with universities for students and dollars, threatening the very existence of brick-and-mortar schools—even though universities provide most of the course content and a significant portion of the funding. However, most individuals involved with MOOCs see on-campus and online courses as complementary to one another, rather than mutually exclusive competitors.

“The biggest thing I tell people to do is don’t fear the MOOC. There’s definitely an increasing level of fear from academics about them. But there’s a lot of good that can come from [these courses] both within and outside of academia,” says Noor, who is quick to add that no one would ever say they were just going to take a bunch of MOOCs rather than getting a degree from a traditional university. “Who would do that? That’s insane!”

Course Websites:
Circuits and Electronics
Introduction to Genetics and Evolution
Writing in the Sciences
Statistics in Medicine

Keywords:  online education