Inconvenient Truths about MOOCs

Broadcasting from W&M Weather Vane

Are you tired yet of all the hype and counter-hype about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)? Since my earlier post about the role of distance learning in the dismissal of UVA President Teresa Sullivan, I’ve collected over a hundred articles from newspapers, mainstream magazines, blogs, and other sources about the operation and potential of these large-enrollment courses. The Chronicle of Higher Education alone has published nearly 20 articles, now summarized in an interactive timeline. I can’t remember the last time a higher educational technology topic captured such wide attention, and those of us in the AIS group are continuing to grapple with what the implications of MOOCs might be.

The fact that a single professor can interact with tens or even hundreds of thousands of students in a course has attracted both champions and critics. Some of the most vocal champions are traditional faculty who actually have taught in the MOOC environment. The New York Times quoted an early Coursera adopter this way:

“Every academic has a little soapbox, and most of the time we have five people listening to us,” said Scott E. Page, a University of Michigan professor who taught Coursera’s model thinking course and was thrilled when 40,000 students downloaded his videos. “By most calculations, I had about 200 years’ worth of students in my class.”

A screen capture of some of Coursera’s current offerings.

According to a recent article in the Chronicle Coursera has registered over a million students and Udacity is close behind with over 739,000. In spite of high dropout rates, 23,000 students passed Sabastian Trun’s Artificial Intelligence Course at Stanford. Student volunteers translated the course into 40 different languages and thousands of questions were answered on student forums. Approximately 250 students — none of them from Stanford — answered every quiz and exam question correctly. In an online talk, Thrun said that this one class had more impact than all the rest of his career combined:

Now that I saw the true power of education, there is no turning back. It’s like a drug. I won’t be able to teach 200 students again, in a conventional classroom setting

One inconvenient truth is that enrollment numbers like these and the enthusiasm of faculty teaching these courses have gotten the attention of board members, journalists, venture capitalists, students, and parents — and that attention is not likely to diminish soon. Many of these parties see education strictly in terms in terms of job preparation and content delivery and they fill their articles with outlandish promises of [disruptive technology], [tsunamis], and [the end of the world as we know it]. Those of us who work within traditional institutions can’t afford to be the climate change deniers of the higher education world; we need to be balanced and deliberative about our assessment of what can be learned from these new experiments. Then we need to add our voices effectively to the conversation.

The second inconvenient truth is that there probably are things we can learn from some of these new delivery models. While we don’t know for sure, it seems likely that students can learn as much in some online courses as they would in some of our “traditional” fact-to-face classrooms. Every college curriculum has a fair number of entry-level classes where students are expected to learn the basic concepts of a particular discipline and to be able to apply them in advanced courses. The content, delivery methods, and assessment tools of those courses are well understood across the disciplines, and many critics of higher ed see no reason that these entry-level courses can’t be developed by experts at some of our best universities and then delivered through technology.

If organizations like edX, Udacity, and the Khan Academy over the next five years really do focus their money and their attention on the continuous improvement of materials and on developing in-depth understanding of online learning, there will be even less reason in the future for individual institutions to invest in developing these kinds of courses. (The courses I’m referring to have some common characteristics. They enroll 100 or more students; course content is largely delivered through lecture; assessment is by mid-term and final, plus homework or problem sets; “covering content” is important to future courses in the discipline; there is wide agreement within the discipline as to what constitutes mastery of the course.) The time is likely to come (sooner rather than later) when even selective research universities will need to have strong justification for developing local materials that might be available elsewhere.

Musings from the Year of the MOOC.

From the MOOC MOOC website…

Based on the last few weeks of reading about MOOCs and my participation in the recently completed MOOC MOOC here are some things I’m reflecting on.

  1. Before I went into full-time IT work, I was the director of Career Services at Hamilton College where one of the projects I worked on was the creation of an “Electronic Career Center.” Early on we put up a sign on the door that said, “Welcome to the Electronic Career Center. The purpose of all this powerful technology is to free up time to practice those uniquely human qualities of empathy, creativity and imagination.” The same applies to MOOCs and content delivery. By using freely developed and shared resources, the time we’re currently spending in old pedagogies might be better invested in attending to “our own eagerness, our own continuously creative brains, and the prime pedagogical directive of education: to create situations that stimulate curiosity and self-directed, intrinsically-motivated learning.” (Quote from Gardner Writes)
  2. While I think the central purpose of undergraduate education needs to be to prepare students to be lifelong learners, my work with W&M biology professor Paul Heideman has convinced me that these entry-level foundational courses are extremely important for helping students build the long-term memory structures that enable creative and critical thinking. If formally developed shared courses really can help us dramatically increase the ability of our students to understand and remember core concepts, I don’t see how we can afford not to use them.
  3. We need to work to keep as many of these resources as possible free and open-source. As good as some of these online resources are, none of them is perfect. If the new tools are going to be widely used, faculty members need to have an easy way to modify materials. (And they have to have the copyright permission to do so.) The organizers of edX have repeatedly stressed that one of the goals of the $60M collaboration is the development of an open source platform that allows instructors to add and modify materials.

The Role of This Blog

We hope that this blog can serve as a forum for the discussion of these new tools and anticipate a series of posts and other activities that will help William & Mary faculty and students participate in this ongoing discussion. Watch for more information.

If you’re interested in reading more about MOOCs on this blog, here are a few posts that you may want to take a look at: Thoughts from a MOOC Pioneer, What We Can Learn from Bryn Mawr’s Online Learning ExperimentThree Reasons MOOCs Should Include Digital Humanities ProjectsThe Final Last Word on MOOCs, and The MOOCs that (Almost) Ate UVA.

About Gene Roche

Gene Roche is director of Academic Information Services with responsibility for assisting faculty in using technology effectively in their teaching, learning and research. He also has an academic appointment as Executive Professor in the School of Education where he teaches courses in educational technology planning, emerging technology, and adult education and works with with students on independent study, dissertations and comprehensive exams. Current projects include working with the SOE’s Executive EdD program, co-chairing William and Mary’s Survey Center, and serving as chair of the Electronic Campus of Virginia. Gene completed his AB degree at Hamilton College and his MS and EdD degrees at Syracuse University–all in the snow belt of upstate New York. Before coming to William and Mary, he was the Director of Career Services at Hamilton and taught in graduate programs in Adult Education at Syracuse University and Elmira College.


  1. Andrew Bauserman says:


    I recently learned about a fellow W&M alumnus (Class of 1992), professor of Biology at Duke and 2008 winner of the Darwin-Wallace Medal, Dr. Mohamed A. Noor, offering a crash course “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution” on Coursera:

    Last I heard he had over 10,000 students enrolled.

    I’m sure the students working in his lab learn more and differently than those solely interacting with him online. But compared to students taking an introductory course in a large lecture hall, the experience may in fact be an improvement…

    • Gene Roche says:

      Thanks your comment Andrew. For me the gold standard of learning is the science lab, the arts studio, the field school, the theater production, or other activities where faculty and students engage in sustained efforts to learn or create something new. The face-to-face interaction that takes place in those settings can never be replicated online (IMHO), and we need to protect those settings at W&M and other universities. The lecture experience CAN be approximated using existing technology. Watching a lecture that explains a complex genetic process on my laptop is not necessarily worse than watching it from the last row in Millington 150. In some ways, it may be better, since I have a pause button on the video on my laptop. I have a feeling that’s a good thing when trying to follow a faculty member who puts the following on his FAQ: “Does Prof. Mohamed Noor ALWAYS talk that fast? Yes.”