Transforming Education: Massive Online Open Courses

Access to classroom learning is far from universal, and even those enrolled in formal educational institutions may be looking for greater, free, and more convenient learning opportunities. In fact, the most heavily cited reason that students take MOOCs, according to a February 2013 Coursera report on the Bioelectricity MOOC from Duke University, is to satisfy intellectual hunger.[1] The desire to extend existing knowledge on specific topics is cited as the second most likely cause for engagement, and professional development as the third.

This academic curiosity is international. Coursera, a platform that launches MOOCs with over 70 partner universities, has, according to on-site figures, enrolled about 9,500,000 students to date. The Knight Center for Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin launched a MOOC with only 2,000 students, but they came from 109 different countries.[2] Students from countries with different political and socioeconomic conditions interacted with one another via discussion forums, as previous generations could not. The 687 participants from the United States corresponded with those from Egypt, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Educational discourse may eventually bridge conflict and unite citizens between states with historically tense relationships.

MOOCs cater not only to university students, but also to adults and working professionals. Many courses consist of students who hold less than a four-year degree, along with students who have Bachelors degrees, and others with more advanced degrees. MOOCs do not require participants to apply for entry or meet other standards for attending a traditional university. In this way, MOOCs provide high-quality courses without financial burden, rigid time commitments, or exclusive acceptance rates. They also allow students to take classes best suited to their abilities and preferences. Students choose MOOCs based on levels of difficulty, and study material at their own paces, based on individual schedules and learning needs.

But the success of this new educational frontier requires flexibility in production, leadership, and participation. Some courses thrive, with hundreds of thousands of active students (like Stanford University’s computer science courses in 2011), while others of similar quality fail, with few students watching course videos and taking tests to complete requirements. Teachers and students must interact dynamically. Instructors establish platforms for discourse, monitoring and participating in message boards, posting feedback and responding to student input. Productive exchanges are structured; 40,000 people cannot participate in the same Google doc. Professors divide students into groups, in which they discuss different topics in alternate forums. Regardless, message boards can fail if students post early then disengage, or enter discussions late and cannot catch up. Students engage in discussion threads, and, if inspired by course discussions, also create their own forums. They often interact over Facebook and Skype, and give instructors critical course feedback.

Like in a traditional class, a professor first designs his syllabus. But he adapts his teaching to the online medium, dividing weekly material into small segments. Rather than allotting 50-minutes for each subject, professors partition material into short clips, determining which subjects require subsequent exercises. Instructors write and practice lecture scripts repeatedly, with unique challenges in mind. They cannot respond to audience reactions, and also consider how international listeners with different backgrounds will understand material. But while recording their videos, teachers can polish monologues by marking each mess-up and editing them out.

Lecture content depends not only on advanced editing, but also on who is speaking. At traditional universities, students may be taught by Teaching Assistants (TAs), particularly in introductory lecture courses. According to the American Federation of Teachers data, the number of TAs has more than doubled since 1975[3]. At American universities, TAs teach thousands of classes. AFT data does not reflect the totality of classes led by TAs; it only accounts for sections in which TAs are the listed teachers. But graduate employees serve as teacher’s aides and share teaching responsibilities. Between 16%-32% of undergraduate sections at public universities are estimated to be taught by TAs. MOOCs, however, ensure that professors, not TAs, teach classes.

By securing a high standard of content and allowing access to people worldwide, regardless of location, funds, credentials, and time, MOOCs present unprecedented educational opportunities. But the impact that MOOCs may have extends far past the educational: democratizing and liberalizing access to learning could have unforeseen economic and political ramifications. As increasing numbers of MOOC platforms arise and more universities partner with them to launch classes, short-term effects of these online courses will grow apparent.


[2] “The MOOC Experience,” December 9, 2012, http://globalsociology.com/2012/12/09/the-mooc-experience/.

[3] Bettinger, Eric and Long, Bridget Terry. “Do College Instructors Matter? The Effects of Adjuncts and Graduate Assistants on Students’ Interests and Success.” National Bureau of Economic Research (2004), http://www.nber.org/papers/w10370.pdf.

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