Can You Learn Nanotechnology Online?

Virtual classrooms are reshaping higher education. But what does that mean for more hands-on, scientific fields?

You may remember 2012 as the year Whitney Houston died, or when you donated all that money to the effort to catch Joseph Kony, the Ugandan guerrilla leader notorious for making young boys into child soldiers. But, according to the New York Times, 2012 was also the year of the MOOC, or massive open online courses. Thousands of students all over the world can take courses online crafted by some of the top universities in the world, all for free. Tech companies were springing up to organize the effort, and many academic institutions were jumping on board to embrace this change and wow a new audience with the power of learning.

Two years later, and enthusiasm for MOOCs seems to have flagged. MOOCs are mostly out of the news, and no one is sure if they have been successful. While many of the initial course offerings focused on math and computer science, topics have since expanded to include subjects as technical as electrical engineering and as abstract as philosophy and human nature. The focus has shifted from for-profit companies claiming to democratize education to non-profit universities using MOOCs as tools for educational outreach, in part because of the weight their institutions’ names carry.

In the two years since these massive online courses arrived on the scene of higher education, MOOC educators have learned a few tricks to teach science, technology, engineering, and math—or STEM— subjects in particular. STEM subjects can be harder to teach in online courses because of their hands-on nature, but some universities have invested in technology to teach STEM that may make it even more engaging for students. These tactics shed some light on where MOOCs are going in the future, both with their content as well as how universities utilize them.

“It’s the ‘open massive’ part that makes these courses interesting, and a lot people are still trying to figure out how to do them well,” said Derek Bruff, the director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

Pre-recording the lessons—in addition to administering them online—changes the class dynamic, Nainani said. “For the teachers, there’s no instant gratification or feedback. People who are used to teaching with a live class, they crave that energy from a live response…they find [the transition] hard.”

Most of Nainani’s interactions with his students occurred in the online forum and periodic Google hangouts.University professors who’ve spent decades in traditional classrooms have quickly learned that a MOOC is a different animal. The timeframe for planning lessons is one conspicuous difference. “The lecture is recorded a few months ahead, and it needs to be produced and transcribed—before it goes live there’s a time delay of at least a few months,” said Aneesh Nainani, a consulting professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University in California. This past summer he taught his first MOOC on nanotechnology through Stanford Online.*

Typically, thousands of students sign up for a MOOC, but only a dozen or so complete it. Bruff, however, believes this is a reflection of the students, not the course. The students who do complete it are devoted, studying for the right reasons. “Since there’s no credit in a MOOC, most of the students who take them are actually interested in learning the material—they have this intrinsic motivation that you don’t always get in a traditional classroom setting,” he said. The students have a huge range of backgrounds and experiences, which means they engage with the subject matter in many different ways, Bruff added.

This diversity of backgrounds can serve to enrich the course if it’s structured well. “MOOC teachers have to go into it with a clear sense of what their learning objectives are,” Bruff said. In Nainani’s experience, MOOC students fare better if courses don’t draw too much on students’ prior knowledge—even information taught earlier in the course. “If every week if what you’re teaching is self-contained, that helps in keeping your audience because that way, even if someone misses a week, they can come back the next week,” Nainani said. Bruff, who has helped educators design a number of MOOCs, agreed, adding that some of the most interesting lessons rely upon the fact that students live all over the world. He cited a nutrition course in which the professor asked students to post pictures of and comment on food labels from their home countries. “You couldn’t do that in a traditional class,” Bruff said.

Where MOOCs and other online forms of education run into trouble is with STEM topics that require hands-on training. “The MOOCs that I’ve seen trying to tackle that use existing simulation software or develop their own,” Bruff said. “It’s not quite the same. There are some things you can’t simulate, like learning physical skills. But simulations can go a long way.” For example, Bruff said, one physics-focused MOOC from Georgia Tech required its students to record a ball being thrown in an arc, after which the sophisticated software analyzed it and asked them to apply fundamental principles of physics to the motion. This was a brilliant way to integrate hands-on learning and the software of the online medium, Bruff added.

Engaging students in some subjects like basic coding and statistics will always be a challenge, and sometimes face-to-face interaction can offset their disinterest. But Bruff sees the most potential for MOOCs in interdisciplinary fields, like a University of Washington course addressing water issues. “When you look at interdisciplinary problems, the MOOC model could work really well,” Bruff said. “It could have more value because people come from different disciplines or from different parts of the world.”

Universities are much more interested in making contact with new students from diverse backgrounds than in solving the world’s problems. “It’s big outreach for Stanford,” Nainani said. “It engages millions of people who will eventually apply to Stanford or come there for professional courses.” Bruff added that MOOCs also engage graduates who want to stay connected to a vibrant academic community, benefitting the university in the hope of increased donations. The financial model here is indirect and long-term—not the most viable tactic for cash-strapped universities.

But most universities aren’t incentivizing their professors to teach MOOCs. “You don’t get paid extra, and [teaching a MOOC] doesn’t count toward your teaching requirement or your tenure achievements,” Nainani said. “So professors are doing it because it’s a powerful new medium and they’re trying to experience it. But how it’s tied to the university long-term is not very clear to me.”

Bruff is more optimistic for MOOCs’ financial impact on universities. Right now, universities hope that students will pay for other programs at the university (like conferences, summer course work or even enrolling full-time) and may branch out into other tactics. University of Alberta, for example, even sells merchandise for a MOOC about dinosaurs.  “There was this moment in all the hubbub where people were thinking, how can you make money off free courses? You’re not going to right your financial ship by free courses,” he said. But if universities are just looking to cover the costs of producing the MOOCs or asking some more frequent students to pay a nominal fee for a certificate, the courses may be more financially viable than they seem.

Some in the media have wondered if MOOCs are merely stepping stones to all-online system of higher education. Still, while the online model works well for some students, others don’t have the same self-motivation to follow a course with no face-to-face contact or oversight. Some face-to-face elements are unlikely to be replaced, Bruff added.

But it’s clear that online education isn’t going anywhere; the combination of in-person and online education seems to produce the best results, Bruff said. Nainani agreed, although he thinks the current integrated system has yet to be perfected. “We need to make online education more engaging and replicate the community aspect of face-to-face meetings,” he said. “But there’s no doubt that we are living more of our lives in the virtual world.” With new virtual reality technology like oculus rift, a blending of the traditional and online classrooms may not be far away.

Despite today’s technical limitations and the uncertainty surrounding MOOCs’ role in higher education, Bruff has enjoyed planning his most recent MOOC, one that’s designed for STEM educators. “There’s a fair amount of MOOC fatigue and skepticism—they were a flash in the pan,” he said. But from an educator’s perspective, the challenges of navigating a new medium are secondary to the rewards of teaching. “I can’t wait for the students to show up because they’ll be there because they want to learn, to play with ideas and go with it. And as a teacher, that’s incredibly rewarding.”

* This post originally stated that Nainani is an electrical engineering professor and that he teaches his MOOC through Coursera. We regret the error.