How Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) Work

Thanks to MOOCs, you too can take a class at Princeton University, just like these undergraduates. See more internet connection pictures.
© Najlah Feanny/Corbis

When two Stanford professors decided to offer their artificial intelligence (AI) course online, for free, to anyone interested in taking it, they'd expected a few thousand students, tops. But by the start of the class, they had 160,000 enrolled [source: Morrison].

That was in 2011. The professors were experimenting with a fairly new course format called the massive open online course, or MOOC (think "mook" for easier reading). Since then, dozens of universities, including some of the most prestigious and expensive in the world, have launched their own MOOCs. Anyone with Internet access can take Fundamentals of Neuroscience from Harvard, Intro to English Composition from Duke, Circuits and Electronics from MIT and Constitutional Struggle in the Muslim World from University of Copenhagen, all for the low-low cost of nothing [source: Coursera]!

And all for no college credit, although various for-credit models are on the drawing board [source: Masterson].

The classes typically run from about four to 12 weeks. Most MOOCs are introductory classes you'd take early in a college career, though some higher-level subjects are available, catering to students who already have some college background or degrees and are looking to continue their education or add a new entry to their resumes [sources: Marques, Pozniak].

It's easy to dismiss the new format as a remake. OpenYale and iTunesU already offer free online lectures. Some colleges offer free e-textbooks and coursework through those types of "open learning" platforms [source: Marques]. Really, if you set the cost-free thing aside, it seems like we've had similar opportunities for years – people have long earned actual college credits and completed degrees online.

MOOCs are legitimately different, though, at least in theory. You take a traditional online course, make it free, nix a lot of the preconceived structure, and oh, right -- have your classmates grade your work. The end is a collaborative, popularized approach to learning based on a theory called connectivism.

In Theory: The MOOC Ideal

Back in 2008, two Canadian educators, Stephen Downes and George Siemens, started the MOOC movement. Their course, offered through the University of Manitoba, was something of an experiment. The aim was to demonstrate connectivism, a learning theory Siemens had developed. The class was called Connectivism and Connectivist Learning, and 2,200 students signed up [source: Morrison]. The core of connectivist theory goes like this: In the digital age, learning happens most effectively in networks. It is, Siemens said, exponentially increased by the act, and the art, of collaboration.

In other words, sharing, growing, and forming connections between seemingly disparate information through a network produces greater understanding than consuming it from a single, finite source. Learning by consumption is static, which today means it might be incomplete, or flat-out wrong, by the time the lecture ends or the book hits the shelves.

Learning by collaboration, on the other hand, has no end. In a MOOC, sources of knowledge are endless. Education moves in all directions -- between instructors and students and especially between students and students, establishing an environment in which understanding continually expands and evolves.

That original MOOC, which some would now call a cMOOC, connected instructors to students via forums, blogs, networks, RSS feeds and live peer-to-peer chats. Following a very loosely constructed syllabus, structured learning happened through online lectures and exams, but the self-guided learning was more the point: Instructors provided an overabundance of proposed online information sources – Web sites, blogs, essays, books -- from which each student was to pick and choose in order to create his own path to understanding (check out the PLE sidebar) [source: Marques]. As the 12-week course progressed, the range of "course materials" grew in the form of blogs, Web pages and forum posts created by the students themselves, who also participated in grading and peer assessment.

MOOCs based on that seminal framework flooded e-learning platforms in 2012, created by individual teachers, field experts, training organizations and universities [source: Marques]. A 2013 Princeton course called Networks Illustrated is a good example of a university-offered MOOC, which some would now call an xMOOC. Let's check that one out.

In Practice: The MOOC Experience

Every MOOC is different, but the "Networks Illustrated: Principles without Calculus" course offered by Princeton is pretty representative of the university version. It is a six-week, not-for-credit course offering free, unlimited enrollment without prerequisite knowledge, using student-to-student and instructor-to-student interaction models, and mostly automated feedback on coursework [sources: Coursera, Brinton]. While the course itself is free, the suggested reading for the course is not; students who want to read the recommended book have to purchase it.

Christopher Brinton, a Princeton Ph.D. candidate (in 2013) in electrical engineering (EE), and Princeton EE professor Mung Chiang teach the course primarily via prerecorded video lectures, which is the norm. They present two one-hour lectures per week, with multiple-choice, instant-feedback quizzes interspersed throughout to test comprehension. Instructors answer students' questions regularly via forum and occasionally in live chat sessions, or "virtual office hours" [source: Brinton].

Coursework is estimated to take six to eight hours per week, with weekly homework assignments and midterm and final exams. All are multiple-choice, machine-graded, and provide instant feedback and explanations. With no reliable oversight to prevent cheating, Princeton does not offer course credit, a final grade or a certificate of completion. Since this particular course is not job-skill oriented, "I find it fascinating that still around 100,000 students have enrolled ... in the first year," says Brinton.

This is a common framework, but it's not universal. The pre-calculus algebra course offered by Ball State University includes peer assessment of coursework [source: Canvas]. The not-for-profit organization Open Security Training's MOOC on rootkits is self-paced, meaning anyone can start and finish the course at any time. That course has recommended (but not required) prerequisite knowledge bases; all suggested course materials are free [source: MOOC List].

North Carolina (NC) State University offers an "upgrade" option for its MOOC course Digital ASIC Design that makes it possible to receive college credit. Upon completion with a grade of 80 or above, a student can enroll in NC State as a non-degree-seeking student, successfully complete a few additional, proctored and/or human-graded assignments, and receive full credit for the class [source: MOOC List].

The number of students taking advantage of all these MOOCs is in the millions [source: Allard]. Only about 10 percent complete the courses, though – and, depending on who you ask, that's not necessarily a bad thing [source: Simonite].

The xMOOC Revolution

Most MOOCs comprise video lectures, multiple-choice quizzes and online forums where students and instructor can talk with each other.
Most MOOCs comprise video lectures, multiple-choice quizzes and online forums where students and instructor can talk with each other.
© Greg Vote/Corbis

Only 1 in 10 students who registers for a MOOC completes it. This may be because many students enroll in the course without intending to finish it; they simply want access to the information provided, treating the MOOC as a continually evolving, interactive textbook [source: Simonite].

Other "drop-outs," though, may intend to complete the course but fail. Varying levels of technological know-how are partly to blame, but growing pains in the learning format contribute significantly [source: Simonite]. "It's difficult to match the student engagement [of a] face-to-face setting," Brinton admits. "Techniques we have experimented with such as virtual office hours seem to help mitigate this, at least to some extent."

The connectivist ideal isn't lost, but it is watered down. For instance, many MOOCs are not as student-guided and participatory as connectivism envisions. Peer-grading is relatively rare. Classes are more structured. Course materials may not be free. And in self-paced MOOCs, where the "peer group" is constantly changing as new students sign up and others speed up or slow down, peer-centered learning can suffer [source: Morrison].

Remember, massive open online courses are still in their infancy. Brinton describes them as "an ongoing experiment from which we are now witnessing the initial results." MOOC designers will need to address the obvious shortcomings if the format is to be the revolutionary step in education some predict. Luckily, the format itself allows for a level of student feedback never before available in the education realm: Researchers can see every keystroke, ever click-through and every time a student fast-forwards through or abandons a video lecture (which large numbers of students do), and then test adjustments at will [source: Simonite].

The rapid, international growth in MOOC offerings and the students expressing interest in them seems to herald real change in how the world learns [source: Amara]. The nature of that change, however, is the source of intense debate.

MOOCs and the Future of Learning

In 2013, five MOOCs won credit recommendations from the American Council on Education, the same organization that advises colleges on how to deal with high school AP credits. Colleges don't have to accept those MOOCs for credit, but now it's easier for them to do so if they want to. The MOOC platform Coursera is exploring ways to offer in-person, proctored add-ons for students who want to earn verified certificates of completion, similar to the way NC State's ASIC design course handles crediting [source: Young].

The trend toward MOOC legitimacy in higher education raises questions about where that education is headed. Supporters believe the format could usher in an era of affordable, high-quality education for everyone (with Internet access) who wants one, opening doors to college and career advancement for those who can't afford to drop a hundred grand or so on the four-year residential model [source: Masterson, Marques].

Chris Brinton sees teacher benefits, too. "It satiates my appetite for teaching," says the Princeton instructor, "while allowing me to face an audience of unprecedented size and widespread demographics."

Yet most in the higher-education field, including Brinton, agree that the best learning models incorporate significant teacher-student contact, and colleges simply can't provide the number of instructors necessary for that kind of contact in a MOOC class of 100,000 [source: Caplan].

Writing assignments, too, fit poorly into the current model. Despite a controversial edX-developed program that grades essays using AI and horrifies English teachers everywhere, they're only very rarely assigned, so it's unclear how writing ability will fare in a MOOC revolution [sources: Caplan, Marques, Knight].

And then, there is the survival of academia itself: Will universities dump their science departments, and the research that goes with them, in favor of the lower-cost MOOC model, sending students online for intro physics rather than paying to seat thousands of students in lecture halls with live professors? Or maybe schools will drop the zero-cost component of the format in favor of maintaining their physics departments. Coursera already plans for its possible certificate program to be fee-based [source: Young].

Christopher Brinton, for one, is optimistic. "It will take us many more years of trial and improvement before we get MOOCs right. But as substantial as the challenges are, [even greater] are the opportunities MOOCs present to redefine the boundaries of education for the future."

So, we wait and see. In the meantime, you or I or my 3-year-old can take Princeton's Networks Illustrated, Stanford's Artificial Intelligence, and Harvard's Intro Neuroscience because they sound kinda cool.

Author's Note: How Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) Work

About midway through writing about Massive Open Online Courses, I heard a story on NPR about a Google pursuit to bring wireless Internet to the most remote corners of the globe via helium balloons. In this context, MOOC could be life-changing education format. People in rural and/or poverty-stricken regions who don't currently have access to the Internet, let alone higher education, let alone higher education through the world's most prestigious universities, may suddenly have the chance to obtain all three. It all depends, I suppose, on how those helium balloons perform in testing, which is already underway in 2013.

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