MOOCs and educational development: Part 1

This is the first in a series of blog posts on MOOCs (massive open online courses).

In 2012, MOOCs gained so much prominence that they were written about in The Economist and The New York Times. Looking at what MOOCs potentially offer, it’s easy to see why they have taken the world of education by storm:

  • MOOCs are free. (At least this is true for the vast majority of MOOCs now.)
  • MOOCs are taught by real professors from top universities.
  • The short videos used in MOOCs are said to be inspired by TED talks. They’re not anything like the videos of classroom lectures that have existed for quite some time. A 40-minute lecture can be boring even when you’re sitting in the classroom. Record that and you might get something that no-one would want to see! But the videos in many MOOCs are made only for those MOOCs. They’re not byproducts of classroom courses.
  • Assignments, problem sets, and exams are not easy. A lot of e-learning content and courses out there mollycoddle learners. Not MOOCs. You have to be prepared to be challenged and even to fail. Most MOOCs have completion rates of around 10%.
  • You get a really nice certificate if you pass the course. When you put in something like 10 hours a week for 12 weeks and pass a nerve-wracking final exam, a certificate doesn’t seem so trivial.

MOOCs do not usually carry formal course credits, but this is changing with some MOOC providers tying up with assessment centers. For the time being, MOOCs are largely about putting yourself through an intensive learning experience just because you want to learn something.

For those who wonder whether that’s a good-enough reason, consider this: 37,347 students from all around the world enrolled in a recent MOOC offered by edX. This 12-week MOOC, titled “Health in Numbers: Quantitative Methods in Clinical Public Health Research”, was offered by the Harvard School of Public Health. I was one of the roughly 5,000 students who completed this course. The completion rate (around 13%) may not seem high, but look at it this way: 5,000 students from dozens of countries completed a Harvard-level course together!

MOOCs have enormous potential for transforming education everywhere. Going by the debates they have ignited, they also have enormous potential to make people worry about the collapse of higher education as we know it.

I live in India, and I’m particularly interested in how MOOCs can supplement higher education in developing countries instead of being seen as a massive threat or, on the other extreme, met with apathy or disdain.

In the next post, I will write more about my experience learning in a MOOC.


About Ravi Murugesan

I live in India and I'm an INASP Associate. I work for the AuthorAID project, mostly as a trainer, and I spend a lot of time on INASP's online learning platform.
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6 Responses to MOOCs and educational development: Part 1

  1. avatar Kim Pyle says:

    Great post Ravi! I’d never heard of MOOCs before, but from this is sounds like they have the potential to really revolutionise online learning. It’s the scale of it that seems really amazing! But I was wondering, if enrolement is free then where does the funding for this type of program come from? Processing assignments and exam scripts from 37000 students must be quite a task…

    • Hi Kim – The three major MOOC initiatives (Coursera, edX, and Udacity) have each been set up with millions of dollars in funding, in the range of $15M. edX has funding directly from universities like Harvard and MIT, whereas the other two are, I believe, startups that possibly have venture capital investment.

      MOOCs seem to be moving to a “freemium” model, where the basic service is free but there are paid add-ons. For example, Udacity is offering accredited courses for $150 by partnering with San Jose State University:

      As for processing assignments from 37000 students, I’ll talk about that in one of my future posts in this series. 🙂

  2. Hello Ravi

    Thanks for the first post and I am looking forward to the next one. As someone who enrolled (and did not finish) a course I am keen to hear about your experience. I thought you might be interested in this open letter from professors at the philosophy department of San Jose State University on why they refuse to use EdX teaching material. It highlights the way MOOCs are perceived as a threat to the established education culture and raises some interesting questions one of which is: are there subjects areas that are just not amenable to distance learning? I also think there are some interesting philosophical questions about the nature and place of education in our society (they are philosophy professors after all).

    There’s an article here with some context to the story:

    • Hi Alex – Thanks very much for the links about the open letter from SJSU to Harvard. Just before responding to your message, I found out that SJSU has tied up with Udacity. It looks like they’ve tied up with edX as well! SJSU is in Silicon Valley, an area full of quick adopters of technology. So I’m not surprised by SJSU’s uptake of MOOCs. But yes it is troubling that the discontent of some of the faculty is now in the open.

      I agree that not all subject areas may be amenable to distance learning. Personally I wouldn’t be keen on taking an online course in philosophy. I suppose in some disciplines one’s views and thoughts need to be validated or challenged continuously by a professor, and I really don’t think that can happen in a MOOC in the way it can in a classroom, especially one with a small group of students.

  3. Hi Ravi, that’s a great post, thank you. I was curious to know whether there are differences in completion rates between MOOCS and traditional courses. I assume they are higher for the latter. If this is the case and the level of difficulty is the same, what do you think are some of the resons behind this? I am thinking, in particular to issues such as pedagogy models used, peer pressure and motivation. Thanks. Here is another link from the New Yorker:

    • Hi Antonio – thanks for the link to the New Yorker article. It’s quite an essay – 10 pages long!

      I think online courses can have a high completion rate, like the AuthorAID online courses that I teach. We regularly see completion rates in the range of 85% to 90%, but these are really online equivalents of classroom courses, not massive courses like MOOCs. The latest AuthorAID course had 50 students and this is high by our standards. I’m generally able to offer personalized attention to students facing problems, and I even follow up with straggling learners.

      But when a course has tens of thousands of students and a handful of teachers, learners who have trouble with the course content cannot hope to contact the teachers. They can only rely on the discussion forums for help, which are useful to some extent but far from being an alternative to direct teacher support. And the forums can be quite disorienting with posts that quickly climb into the hundreds and thousands.

      I’ll be writing more about this in my future posts!