Schools that Go the Distance

Schools that Go the Distance

Find out why Caltech joined the online education craze and explore some of the resources available to lifelong learners.

By Tariq Kamal 08/12/2013

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Caltech has joined the growing number of prestigious schools that offer massive open online courses (MOOCs). These mostly college-level courses are available to the general public, usually for no cost, and they attract tens of thousands of registrants. And sites are beginning to spring up for young children, such as the much-vaunted Khan Academy, whose students span elementary school through college age.The concept of online education appears to be gaining acceptance. A recent poll conducted by the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Times found that 59 percent of respondents were in favor of expanding online courses to reduce costs for California’s cash-strapped public university system.

Cassandra Horii, founding director of Caltech’s Center for Teaching and Outreach, sees MOOCs — which are generally not accepted for course credit — as the next logical step in a decades-long pursuit of new ways to connect with all types of students. “Caltech has reached out digitally for many years,” she says. “It really has been driven by the faculty. They want to use online technology in new ways.”

Yaser Abu-Mostafa, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, launched Caltech’s first MOOC last year: “Learning from Data” serves as an introduction to machine learning (a form of artificial intelligence) and includes 18 lectures, homework assignments and a final exam. The subject matter is incredibly challenging and there’s no tangible reward for completing the course. But thousands of students did so, and more than 100,000 have audited.

So what makes MOOCs so popular?
Part of the appeal for adults out in the real world is instructors’ ability to offer information and materials not typically available from a Wikipedia page or documentary film. Depending on the format, MOOCs can also offer opportunities to interact with professors, teaching assistants (TA) and fellow students. Ryan Trainor, a Caltech graduate student in astronomy, served as a TA for “Galaxies and Cosmology,” a MOOC created by Professor S. George Djorgovski. The course is one of three Caltech hosts on, a site that offers hundreds of courses from a long list of universities, including Princeton, Yale and Stanford.

Trainor says partnering with Coursera makes producing a MOOC “much easier than starting from scratch,” noting that the site offers several features that help instructors replicate the experience of a traditional classroom. “The most obvious difference is not having direct contact — no facial expressions or visual cues,” he says. “You have to figure out if the students are following along.” To that end, instructors may punctuate their lectures with quizzes and create online forums that allow students to ask questions. With 28,000 students from around the world enrolled in “Galaxies and Cosmology,” many questions are answered by other students within minutes, regardless of the time of day.

The astronomy course attracted a diverse group whose only common trait was an interest in the subject, Trainor says. Horii says “Drugs and the Brain,” another Caltech MOOC, drew in teens and octogenarians — spanning the spectrum of educational levels, including medical school. MOOCs have granted Caltech “another level of international outreach,” helped alumni reconnect with the school and allowed potential students to get a glimpse of the work that lies ahead, she adds.

No one is charged tuition, which begs the question: Are Caltech’s professors giving away what their on-campus students pay to get?

Horii has no such concerns. “Students who come to campus have an experience well beyond what you get online, including working in labs and conducting hands-on research,” she says. Indeed, there are limitations to the types and effectiveness of courses that can be offered online. Horii hopes future advancements will lead to “online immersive spaces” that can make a MOOC possible for subjects that require lab time, including certain mechanical engineering and robotics courses.

As Robert Talbert wrote of Khan Academy, a site that produces brief video tutorials for K–12 students, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Khan Academy is not a substitute for an actual course of study in mathematics. It is not a substitute for a live teacher. And it is not a coherent curriculum of study that engages students at all the cognitive levels at which they need to be engaged. It’s okay that it’s not these things. We don’t walk into a Mexican restaurant and fault it for not serving spaghetti.”

MOOCs have already contributed to the advancement of “flipped” classrooms, which allow students to watch prerecorded lectures when and where they choose; actual classroom time is reserved for interactive problem-solving. At Caltech, the idea — and the technology — is catching on. “Faculty and students are excited that MOOCs have made it possible to ‘flip’ classes,” Horii says. “Online tools are blowing the lid off the perception of how courses should work.”

Online Classrooms

Massive open online courses are designed by instructors and shared on a wide variety of web-based platforms. Some, including many of those produced by Caltech faculty, can be found on YouTube or the schools’ own websites. The rest can be accessed via sites specifically designed for the medium. Here are several you can explore today:
Sometimes referred to as the “Hulu of education,” Academic Earth offers video-based courses produced by instructors from prestigious colleges in the U.S. (e.g., Columbia and Dartmouth), India and Ireland. The site is graphically appealing, easy to navigate and includes subjects from a wide range of disciplines. Academic Earth also offers “playlists” of its most popular courses, including such heady topics as “Living a Good Life,” “Love Is in the Air” and “The Nature of Evil.”
Coursera lists nearly 400 courses on a wide range of subjects, from artificial intelligence to “A Brief History of Humankind.” The focus is on math and science, but there are several MOOCs in the arts, humanities, music and more. The site’s designers stress the importance of interaction, offering pop-up quizzes and online discussion forums to keep students engaged. In addition to the open courses, Coursera has partnered with UC Irvine, Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania to offer a handful of classes for college credit.
EdX is a MOOC platform launched as a cooperative venture between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. The course catalog includes MOOCs from both schools as well as UC Berkeley, Kyoto University and many more. The site’s founders designed edX as a strictly noncommercial enterprise; in fact, the site’s source code is freely available for other institutions to copy and repurpose.
The Faculty Project is a relatively small-scale MOOC provider organized by 14 professors from 12 U.S. colleges, such as USC and Vassar. The site includes courses on history, economics, language, music, math and science. Business owners might want to start with this site, which offers such courses as “Entrepreneurship — From Idea to Launch,” “Foundations of Business Strategy” and “Operations Management.”
Launched by MIT and Harvard Business School graduate Salman Khan in 2006, Khan Academy offers a unique take on the MOOC concept. The site offers thousands of videos, all hosted by YouTube, but most are only a few minutes long. Khan’s “micro-tutorials” are designed to be enjoyed by students of any age but they’re accessible to youngsters. Khan Academy’s staggering number of courses and wide reach has allowed it to deliver more than 200 million lessons, earning an endorsement from Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates.
The OpenCourseWare (OCW) Consortium is a MOOC platform with an international emphasis. The site allows students to search for courses by subject as well as language and source; for example, there is a long list of MOOCs for Spanish speakers. The OCW Consortium also offers a directory of sites maintained by individual institutions, including the site’s many partners in the U.S., such as Johns Hopkins and Michigan State.
The Open University’s story begins well before the digital age. The school itself was founded in 1969 and is the largest in the U.K., with more than 250,000 students, most of whom complete their studies off-campus. The OU is widely regarded as a pioneer in distance learning. The school produced countless radio and TV broadcasts from 1971 to 2006; today, the OU has embraced the MOOC model and lists more than 600 such courses in its online catalog.
Udacity offers a long list of college-level business, computer science, math, physics and psychology courses. Once a course is added to Udacity’s catalog, it can be started and completed at any time; most other sites operate on a set calendar. Udacity also distinguishes itself by issuing certificates of completion and tracking each student’s progress through the site’s My Courses interface. Like Coursera, Udacity places a heavy emphasis on interactive features.
This site is similar to other MOOC providers in offering free courses to any interested party. However, anyone can contribute to Wikiversity, including teachers and students at every educational level. The result is a less formal, more work-in-progress site with great potential. Like the OCW Consortium, Wikiversity is an international project; there are Wikiversities in 14 languages.


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