Posted by: holdenlee | March 2, 2013


The following is a re-post of my response to the current events discussion on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) in 11.125. We were asked to read several articles, look at 8.02x, and give our opinions.

Initial thoughts on MOOCs

My views align most closely with Tabarrok’s article. Rephrasing slightly from his formulation, the advantage with MOOC’s is fourfold.

  1. Time: They save time, by preventing teachers from having to give the same or related lectures over and over again, each reaching only a limited audience. (Tabarrok’s graph provides a nice example of this.)
  2. Leverage: They give the best teachers access to more students (like, 1000 times more students), many who wouldn’t otherwise have the educational opportunity.
  3. Flexibility: Students learn at their own pace, and can jump from place to place.
  4. Feedback: On the first level, students can get immediate feedback on assignments. On another level, by mining data, teachers can find what works and implement improvements faster.

I think the sheer numbers of time savings/leverage alone gives justification for MOOCs.

8.02x: positive impressions

When I first registered for 8.02x, I saw a encouraging video by Walter Lewin (I know some of you are struggling but keep working!). This is a nice way to decrease the distance between the teacher and student inherent in online courses. I briefly looked at the lectures and found Lewin to be more engaging than my 8.022 professor. (The site does boast about him… This shows point #2 well.) I like how I have to solve problems in between the lecture clips: this forces me to think more than in a 50-minute lecture class. (Some students noted on the forum that they did not like this, however.) The wiki and forum allow more student interaction that I normally have when I’m doing a pset in my room. In a way, I think it decreases the “barrier” to communication: posting a question is easier than emailing the professor, and garners more interaction between students. I definitely appreciate the flexibility of going through the lectures on my own time.

I like how all the materials are organized on one site: in a normal course I don’t think I would be motivated to take time to look at online simulations, but they are literally a click away on the website. Nicely written solutions are a click away from the problems.

8.02x: negative impressions

What would I miss out if I took 8.02x purely online instead of 8.02?

  1. Pset groups: Talking over problems with students
  2. Recitations: One-on-one or small group time with a TA or professor (coaching through problems, or exploring additional topics)
  3. Labs

I think that right now MOOCs are less effective than traditional courses because it lacks these things.

There is more potential for the lectures to be an online experience—right now they are just supplemented taped lectures. (What purpose does turning to videotape the students serve? For solidarity?) For instance, the professor could write on something easier to see than a blackboard, and simulations could be incorporated into the videos. The course could be more personalized, for instance, giving extra resources to those who struggle on the problems during lecture.

Also, kind-of-random, but a Chinese student complained about not being able to see the videos because they were posted from YouTube…

Addressing criticism on MOOCs

A big criticism is that MOOCs cannot replace professor-student interactions, discussion and lab classes, and so forth, and I agree with this. However, MOOCs are off to a great start, because they provide at least a bare-bones lecture class to many people who would not otherwise have access to this education.

I don’t believe in the end goal of MOOCs completely replacing our educational system. I do think that moving lectures and simple assessments online to MOOCs frees time for professor-student interaction and the rest of the (fuzzily-defined) “college experience.” With information technology, it is simply not cost-efficient to have 1000 professors from many universities spending 100s of hours teaching classes which might have 60% material in common.Universities are not made obsolete, but they need to adapt their educational practices by focusing on doing in-class what cannot be done online.

A good example is how the pilot 6.002x group at MIT last year met in person and interacted with the professor–thus in a sense, getting the most out of both MOOCs and from being on campus. Alternatively, as in Marovich’s article, one could follow the model of a small online course, where teachers can interact one-on-one in the online space. Ideally I see some melding of a MOOC and a small-group on-campus experience.

In response to a quote from this discussion

“But if I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading university offers a free circuits course, it becomes a real question whether other universities need to develop a circuits course.”

My solution is to modify the system so that a MOOC course (or part of the MOOC) is part of a class. Rather than having its professors waste time to develop a circuits course that has already been done (they could if they think they would do it better than MITx…), they could use these online materials, and then just add labs, discussions, focus on special topics, and so forth not present in the MOOC. This brings a “remixing” spirit to curriculum design.

A more serious issue with MOOCs is that they are geared towards students who already “know” how to learn, and do not motivate students who are struggling or disillusioned with learning in the first place. As mentioned in a study,

While all types of students in the study suffered decrements in performance in online courses, some struggled more than others to adapt: males, younger students, Black students, and students with lower grade point averages.

Unless MOOCs provide scaffolding for disadvantaged learners, online education will not be the equalizer we are hoping for.


  1. […] are several important ways in which online education offers order-of-magnitudes improvement. See my previous post and Tabarrok’s article for a […]

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