The Big Idea That Can Revolutionize Higher Education: 'MOOC'

Massive open online courses combine the best of college -- exceptional instruction -- with the best of technology -- online interactive learning. Is this the future of efficient, effective education?



In the historic sweep of technology, higher education stands apart as a bastion of old-fashioned thinking. But in anticipation that the information revolution is coming for colleges, Ivy League colleges are competing to create online classes without the Ivy League price tag and without the Ivy League admission hurdles. In a recent article in the New Yorker, the President of Stanford, John Hennessy said, "There's a tsunami coming."

Daphne Koller, a professor of Computer Science at Stanford University and the co-founder of Coursera, a free online classroom, believes that Hennessy is right. "The tsunami is coming whether we like it or not," she said. "You can be crushed or you can surf and it is better to surf."

Coursera is a massive online open classroom -- or MOOC -- that operates in conjunction with four top universities - Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan, and Princeton. Co-founded by Koller and Andrew Ng, Coursera currently offers forty classes on topics ranging from poetry to robotics. Like a traditional class, each online class is comprised of a series of video lectures with PowerPoint slides. Students can participate in discussion boards and are graded on the assignments. Students who complete the course with passing grades receive a certificate of completion.

Earlier this month, Coursera was joined by another Ivy League MOOC, edX. EdX, a joint education venture run by MIT and Harvard, will begin offering online classes in Fall 2012. About 120,000 students signed up for the first MITx course, "Circuits and Electronics,'' in March. In a video on their website, President, Anant Agarwal, explained that like Coursera, edX classes will be open to anyone.

Students who complete the course would be offered a certificate, rather than college credit.

Coursera and edX have more in common with the Khan Academy than with the typical online classes offered by most colleges and for-profit enterprises, like the University of Phoenix. The Khan Academy began as a series of lectures given by Sal Khan, a hedge fund manager, to help his cousin with her math homework. He uploaded his explanations to algebra problems to YouTube and was surprised when his videos began to attract a huge following. With backing by the Gates Foundation and Google, the Khan Academy now features 3,200 videos on everything from math to history.


Offer high-quality products at a low price, consumers tend to notice. When Target offers clothes from couture designers like Missoni and Rodarte, the stock disappears within a few hours. The same goes for higher ed: Huge numbers of people are also flocking toward bargain basement Ivy League classes.

Coursera has attracted vast numbers of students, and its reach expands exponentially every day. In the Fall quarter, 104,000 students signed up for Stanford's Machine Learning class. Koller explained that 60 percent of those students seemed be simply curious and did not continue the class. 40,000 students submitted assignments and 20,000 did a substantial amount of work. The grading curve was set relatively high. Only 13,000, or 65%, received certificate of completion rate. Considering that a typical college class serves twenty to thirty students, 13,000 successful students is a considerable feat.

These classes seem to attract a largely international student body. Koller said that using data from IP addresses, 60-67% of the students come from the international community, but those numbers vary depending on the topic of the course.

She said that most of the students seemed to be professionals who need to expand their skills, such as a computer programmer who needs to master a new programming language. These classes also attracted students who were enrolled in universities that did not offer a particular class or a course was not offered at the right level. The rest of the students were extremely diverse individuals, including 13-year olds and retired grandmothers. She expects the diversity of students will expand as they introduce new classes in the Liberal Arts.


Using new technology and crowd sourcing innovations, both programs hope to bypass the problem of needing human beings to moderate discussions and grade assignments.

Multiple choice tests can be easily graded using technology, but essays, the most accepted form of assessment for the humanities and the social sciences, have proven to be trickier. It would be impossible to hire enough people to grade the essays for a class that served 20,000. At Coursera, three engineers worked for two months on creating a system similar to Amazon Mechanical Turk for peer evaluation. This program will launch in about a week. EdX will use essay-grading software.

Presented by

Laura McKenna is a former political science professor who writes regularly at Apt. 11D.

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