To MOOC or not to MOOC
Questions arise over massive online courses now being offered by Caltech and some of the world’s top schools
By Rebecca Kuzins 02/20/2014
About 34,000 students are enrolled in “Drugs and the Brain,” an online course Caltech Professor Henry Lester began teaching last month. But these students do not receive instruction from Lester in a classroom. In fact, some actually live outside the United States. For Lester’s class, students view lectures online and are assigned homework and reading materials.
By the latest estimates, only 4 to 5 percent of those enrolled will actually complete the class. But that is still nearly 1,700 pupils who saw it through to the end.
“Drugs and the Brain” is one of four MOOCs — massive online open courses — that Caltech has been offering students both on- and off-campus. Massive is right, if not actually an understatement about this ironically named program. Thousands of off-campus students with Internet access are able to enroll online in these free, open and non-credited classes.
Caltech introduced MOOC (not to be confused with “mook,” which, according to the Miriam-Webster online dictionary as “a foolish, insignificant, or contemptible person,” typically the exact opposite of any Caltech student) in 2012. That first class, “Learning from Data,” an introduction to machine learning, soon grew into “Principles of Economics with Calculus” and “Galaxies and Cosmology,” in addition to Lester’s class.
‘Flipping’ the model
To MOOC or not to MOOC has been intensely debated at Caltech and other universities during the past two years. Advocates maintain these classes are the future of higher education, providing high-quality instruction to people who would otherwise be unable to afford or enroll at institutions like Caltech. But critics are questioning whether MOOCs actually improve the quality of instruction. They remain skeptical that the current model of free, democratic education can ultimately be sustainable.
Caltech is seriously committed to the new teaching format. An article published last year in “The Chronicle of Higher Education” listed Caltech as one of the leaders in the MOOC movement, along with Harvard, MIT, Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas, among others. Two years ago, Coursera, a for-profit MOOC provider, announced that Caltech and Penn invested a combined $3.7 million in the company.
“MOOCs are opening doors to our own faculty and students about approaches to teaching and learning,” said Cassandra Volpe Horii, the director of Caltech’s Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach. “They are giving people an opportunity to innovate and experiment and really interact in some new ways with each other. And that’s exciting. As a place that loves innovation, and that wants to explore, you’d have trouble keeping Caltech faculty and students from being interested.”
At various times during the academic year, the four professors offer their MOOCs to Caltech students. The format for these classes differs from the MOOCs offered free to thousands of others.
Traditionally, university courses were taught in an on-campus classroom, where students listened to a professor lecture. Students then went home to complete homework assignments, either on their own or with other students. Many MOOCs have “flipped” this model, including the economics and calculus course taught by Professor Antonio Rangel.
Caltech students, Rangel explained in an email, “work through the videos, lecture notes, practice problems and graded problem sets before class. We then meet every week for a ‘flipped classroom’ meeting, in which they are divided in teams of three and work in solving a ‘challenge’ problem on the material, with my assistance.” Caltech students, he added, have access to office hours with course staff to receive further instruction.
Students not enrolled at Caltech “have access to online material, but do not participate in the ‘challenge problem’ sessions, or in live office hours, which are ONLY for Caltech students,” Rangel said. However, these students communicate via online discussion forums, where they can ask questions; Rangel and staff frequently monitor the forum and respond to posted material. The forums also give off-campus students an opportunity to answer other students’ questions and organize study groups, including some in languages other than English.
Rangel also incorporated concepts from mastery learning into his MOOC. Students at Caltech and off-campus who are solving problem sets online “are allowed 10 attempts to get the problem set right, before a grade is assigned. I think this really enhances learning, because they can catch their mistakes and keep working until they master the material,” he said.
“The flipped classroom model,” Rangel continued, “seems to be increasing the quality of learning in the course.” In teaching the MOOC, Rangel said he has learned “There are a lot of smart people beyond Caltech, and all over the world, who can take a Caltech course.”
Horii cited several other advantages of MOOCs: “In the world of MOOCs, you now have access to a great variety of subject matter, expertise and structured opportunities to learn. I think one of the differences with a MOOC compared to just say watching a YouTube video, or reading something in a popular magazine or textbook, is that there is interaction and learning built in. You’ll have the opportunity to answer those problems and ask the questions related to that online course.
“You also have a cohort; there’s a start date, there’s an end date, and there’s a group of students who are on this path with you. Many of them are also working on those very same questions or problems, so you’re not alone,” Horii said.
Although MOOCs are a relatively new development, the number of these courses and students has rapidly expanded in the past two years, as evidenced by statistics provided by Coursera, the largest MOOC provider. Providers are the “middle men” of MOOCS: They obtain courses created by professors at Caltech and other universities, advertise them on their Web sites, and enroll off-campus students. Rangel’s “Principles of Economics with Calculus” course is provided by edX , a nonprofit MOOC jointly funded by Harvard and MIT; “Drugs and the Brain” and “Galaxies and Cosmology” are provided by Coursera.
According to Coursera’s Web site, the company offers 611 free courses, almost 90 percent of them in English, the rest in Chinese, Russian, Spanish and a range of other languages. The majority of these courses are created by American universities, but MOOCs have also been designed by colleges in France, Denmark, China, Russia, Germany and other countries, and by the National Geographic Society and the World Bank. Coursera boasts that it has enrolled more than 6.5 million students.
Completion rates for these programs, however, are less impressive. Last year, a study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education concluded that only 4 percent of students enrolled in first-generation Coursera courses completed the classes. Last month, an edX study stated that slightly better than 5 percent of the 840,000 students enrolled in 17 edX courses completed them, although about two-thirds of them “got at least something out of the experience.”
Proponents of MOOCs maintain the low completion rate is not a criticism of these courses’ effectiveness but an indication of the wide demographic range of their students. They say MOOCs are aimed at a broader range of students than those who attend the traditional university, and some of the students want to merely scan the course and obtain only some of its information.
“Our observation in college and higher education is that people are coming to these MOOCs with a real variety of purposes and intents,” said Horii. “There’s everything from someone who’s interested, invested in some of it, to somebody who’s incredibly invested, does every problem, participates in the discussion forum, does every assignment, just completes the entire thing.”
One reason why many off-campus students merely surf through and fail to complete MOOCs is that these classes are free and are not for college credit — the characteristics that make them attractive to thousands of students. But some fear this type of MOOC will not be around much longer.
“The creation of these courses is expensive,” said Professor John Dabiri, chair of Caltech faculty. “You have to do the videoing, the technology. Right now, Caltech is investing in that primarily because of the possibility of improving teacher quality, not as a business proposition. Caltech has decided that as a potential new technology tool for learning, it’s something that we should invest the money in, and [we] are investigating whether it works.” However, he added, “the longer-term question” for MOOC providers is going to be, “Do you have a sustainable business?”
edX has already asked that question. This spring it will offer one of Harvard’s MOOCS, “Introduction to Computer Science,” for both credit and a fee. Students can opt to audit the course or earn an honor code certificate of achievement, certifying that they have completed the course but not verifying their identity. Both of these options are free. But those who want to earn a verified certificate of achievement upon completion will pay $350 for an enhanced version of the class, which provides greater interaction with teaching assistants and virtual group office hours with the instructor than are available in the free programs. Students can also enroll in Harvard Extension School’s intensive course on the subject and pay $1,070 to receive either no credit or undergraduate credit or $2,050 to earn graduate credit.
Dabiri said some Caltech students fear the value of their degrees will be reduced if certificates are offered to students who complete courses online but do not attend the university. He and other professors are skeptical about the effectiveness of MOOC instruction. “I think that at Caltech the principal concern, whether it’s a MOOC or it’s in the classroom, is we want to make sure that the teaching quality is at a certain level. … There are faculty who are trying out these MOOCs and these faculty are very enthusiastic about the experience. I and others would like to see what the pedagogical results are. Are the students learning more efficiently, are they retaining the material using this MOOC platform as opposed to the conventional classroom experience?”
Some instructors say MOOCs have improved the quality of their teaching because they can view their performance online and learn from their mistakes. In addition, Horii maintained that some of the pedagogical data Dabiri and others want to obtain is being generated by the MOOCs themselves.
“One thing we’re excited about is the digital platform has the potential for some real insight into how students learn because there can be data associated with all the clicks of the mouse, the tracker, and answers to questions, participation in various activities,” she said. “That is something that is really compelling for a campus that asks rigorous scientific questions and likes to look at data.”
Both proponents and critics of MOOCs agree on one point: Both maintain that based on their experiences so far, online courses are a poor substitute for traditional classroom instruction.
“There is an important social aspect to the dynamics of a classroom that gets lost online,” said Rangel. “For example, it is very useful to see students’ faces during an explanation to see if it’s being delivered optimally. With a MOOC I get good measures of this, but only after the fact.”
Dabiri said the lack of student-professor interaction is a special concern at Caltech, where “It really is the research experience that we think sets it apart from someone who sits at home and Googles the information for themselves, or from a MOOC. … There’s something about a good professor … being in the intimate environment with the professor, working on a research problem in the laboratory in a hands-on setting that today’s technology can’t reproduce.
“Maybe in 10 years there will be some way of doing that virtually. But it doesn’t exist today.”