MOOCs: A Necessary Academic Innovation in a Global Economy

rethink-mooc-webThe average American college student studies less hours than the necessary thirty hours per week, according to Alexander C. McCormick from the Association of American Colleges and Universities. While it is true that “the more students engage in educationally purposeful activities, the more they learn,” says McCormick, it has become increasingly clear that the way students learn and study greatly impacts their success. And so it happens, students find thirty hours of study time unrealistic. Exhausted from trying to please both professors and employers, students either drop out of college or look for ways to get out of the system they know to be idiotic. Many professors, including Anant Agarwal of MIT, agree that the way students currently learn needs to be adjusted to incorporate technological advances and changes in our society so that students don’t feel burnt out from hours on end of inefficient studying.

While countries like Japan struggle to integrate technology into their education but realize the necessity for doing so, a large percentage of Americans still believe the myth that says their only chance of getting ahead means putting in sixty hour work weeks. The college professors who noticed their students’ plight decided to do something to correct these problems. Through research and personal experience, professors realized that cramming students’ minds with a fast-paced flow of information doesn’t benefit students in the long run. Some, if not most, students simply can’t put in the number of hours required to pass traditional classes. Thus, American culture is now witness to the creation and expansion of a new breed of online schools, including edX, Coursera, and Udacity, that work to provide students with free, self-paced classes taught by high-level college professors.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) don’t yet offer college credit, but these new online schools provide the educational resource many students crave. EdX claims that all a student needs is Internet connection and a current browser. Although more MOOCs exist, Udacity, Coursera, and edX head the pack, paving the way for this new way of learning. Laura Pappano of the New York Times notes that Coursera, which was founded in January of 2011, reached 1.7 million students by the end of that same year. Andrew Ng of Stanford, Coursera’s co-founder, says that at its current rate, Coursera grows “faster than Facebook.” As the many changes in our society reshape the way we think about our lives and how we spend our time, education has lagged behind the trend. For example, the popularity of MOOCs intimates that a degree in the traditional sense of the word may no longer appeal to students as much as simply having an education and a good job.

Dr. Ray Schroeder, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois, Springfield, notes that some students would like to receive some recognition or credit for classes, but developers struggle with how to provide this. EdX does provide certificates of completion as long as students pay a fee. Dr. Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, expects universities to start accepting edX certificates in much the same way as they already do with Advanced Placement. Even if students don’t receive college credit, one of Udacity’s goals is to help students find jobs and has great success in doing so because the courses are in partnership with companies like Google and Microsoft. Because most of the students taking these courses have already completed college level degrees and because of Udacity’s job placement goals, an acceptable form of recognition will most likely only encourage students without higher education to take the courses.

Interestingly enough, the majority of MOOC students already participated in higher education. The percentage of students that completed college degrees, over one third of which were graduate degrees, comes to seventy percent. In order to attract people driven to enhance their educations, these online courses must reach high standards, and according to surveys taken from MOOC students, they do. Sixty-three percent found the online courses better than on-campus courses, thirty-six percent said the classes were comparable, and only one percent stated that the online courses were worse. The one percent of students see the most room for improvement, but well-educated students with ideas about how to improve the courses may prove the most beneficial to this new educational system.

This new way of higher education is expanding and becoming more popular every day; however, it’s not without its problems. First, because all classes are online, many students cheat as it is so easy to do. Now, to avoid cheating, Udacity and edX offer proctored exams. Second, because the courses are free and do not require completion, the majority of students don’t engage in the assignments or stick with the courses. Though it seems negative, this could prove beneficial in the long run because students should want to become educated in order to strive for better jobs and to contribute to their society in a meaningful way. Trying to force students to do assignments causes resentment and poor quality work. Possibly allowing students to choose their own levels of success will help them take their classes more seriously.

One of the positive but unexpected results Udacity and edX created was student networking. In place of professor-student interaction, students organize study groups within their geographical area to help each other learn and even grade each other’s work. Coursera has study groups in roughly 1,400 cities around the globe in which students may get together to study or to socialize with people that have similar interests as themselves. These online schools allow for people to self-educate, expand their capacities, and to meet other like-minded people. For example, Jacqueline Spiegel, a woman who has her master’s degree in computer science from Columbia, enrolled in a MOOC course that connected her with women from India and Pakistan. She formed Facebook study groups and even started her own website, CompScisters, for women taking science and technology-focused MOOCs.


According to Dr. Schroeder, the three most important aspects of learning include “quality of material covered, engagement of the teacher, and interaction among students.” Because instructors cannot interact with over 15,000 students at a time, developers are designing ways for courses to auto-correct. The courses will eventually be able to find the place at which the student made the mistake and make suggestions as to how to make the correction. In some courses where this isn’t possible, students are expected to grade each other’s work. If someone doesn’t take the grading seriously or simply isn’t good at grading, “Coursera is developing software that will flag those who assign very inaccurate grades and give their assessment less weight.” The system isn’t perfect, but students seem to agree that the two out of three factors have been adequately met.

One of the deeply rooted ideas is to attract people from around the globe in places where education may not be readily accessible. MOOC students vary in age, educational backgrounds, and geographical location creating another problem. All of these factors influence how the student will contribute to the class. Students sometimes give incorrect or uninformed feedback which can hold back the entire class. Though courses often give students recommendations as to what they should prepare for, it doesn’t always prevent some from taking the course anyway. Udacity’s Dr. Ng argues that while the professors and developers behind the scenes can see these problems and can make suggestions, ultimately the universities control of the courses. In spite of the set-backs, the excitement surrounding MOOCs grows continually.


EdX in particular collects data from students that assist schools in finding the most effective ways for students to learn. All schools should strive to find ways to improve teaching, but because MOOC schools exist on the Internet, the collection of data about students’ preferences becomes easier. There is no interaction with a professor; therefore, classes are designed to be interactive with students. The current teaching techniques include videos, most of which span from eight to twelve minutes and pause twice to quiz the student, making sure he or she understands the material (teachers and students rave about the video lectures). All of the feedback students receive is electronic and the courses sometimes offer homework assignments and final exams.

Schools now have an easy way to see what types of teaching methods students enjoy the most. Because schools such as Udacity want to appeal to students, the schools prefers teachers with the best teaching capabilities more so than professors known for their academic achievements. Dr. Stavens, one of the three men that founded Udacity says that they turn down about 98 percent of those wanting to teach for Udacity. He believes that this new way of learning will eventually replace traditional ways of attracting professors. Students will most likely opt for professors with a better teaching style rather than a more impressive academic history. Only time will tell if the fact that teaching style ranks higher than academic history will lower academic standards.

The current and prospective students of today have grown up with technology and often have an easier time working with it than the previous generations. The first edX course, an MIT-level circuits and electronics class, attracted 155,000 students from 162 countries. While only 7,200 of that original number passed the course, Dr. Agarwal makes the case that he would have to teach two semesters every year for forty years in order to teach that many students. He rightly points out that the new millennial generation is comfortable with technology; instead of fighting the trend, schools should work with students’ capabilities and integrate it into their teaching methods. As proof, the Sant High School in Mongolia used the video lectures from the first edX course to assist in teaching their students. The high school had students watch the video tutorials at home and then come into class for physical laboratory work, and the students experienced phenomenal success.

Problems with students’ educational backgrounds do arise, but many high school teachers find their students ready for the courses. Pam Halstead, an instructor at Fortuna High School in northern California, uses edX to teach her students and says that it benefits her classes immensely. She says that even though the graduate level course is rigorous, her young students can manage the work with her help. Furthermore, Halstead’s students were able to receive science laboratory credit from the University of California schools. Though the pitfalls of MOOCs present new challenges for developers and professors, the benefits of these online courses more than make up for those challenges.

Another example of success occurred when edX did a pilot study with the San Jose State University of California, using the same edX circuits and electronics class. In this case, the instructors again asked their students to watch the tutorial videos on their own time and come to class prepared. Students watched the videos and then came into class for hands-on lab work ending with results that were positively “staggering” according to Dr. Agarwal. The many success stories and student feedback provide enough proof that our current educational systems would benefit from examination and revision.


Without innovation, American education can no longer compete with other countries. If Americans would like to play a more active role in the growing global world, our education systems must show improvement. According to Dr. Agarwal, education hasn’t changed in the past 500 years, and he points out that the ticket for this change is blending technology and education. When we “reimagine education” as Dr. Agarwal says, we can allow room for new ideas and better learning techniques. American students, using outdated techniques, try so hard to keep up in a world of technology and advancement. But what if the only way to keep up with the changes in our world is to rethink the way we learn completely? I don’t know about you, but I’m open to suggestions.