MOOCs really can change the world

Massive, open, online courses (MOOCs) have been a novelty trying to find a business model, but that could be changing. Having free, top-quality courses from Harvard, MIT, Georgia Tech, UPenn, has an obvious appeal. Until recently, though, there wasn’t a great deal of evidence that MOOCs were significantly contributing to educational outcomes for either traditional or non-traditional students.

Anant Agarwal, co-founder of EdX, the MOOC started by MIT and Harvard, shared in an interview this week that the “sweet spot” of MOOCs may be in augmenting, not necessarily replacing, traditional university courses. In fact, in a single course at SJSU, the failure rate dropped from 40% to 9% in a highly difficult electronic circuits course:

“If you combine online with in-person, you get the best of both worlds. You don’t have to drag students to a lecture at 8 am, they can learn at their own pace. Yet they can still get in-person help from the professor when they come to class. This type of model can be very successful. When our blended circuits and electronics course was taught at San José State University in California, outcomes were staggeringly good. Traditionally, about 40 per cent of the students fail the class; this time, the failure rate fell to 9 per cent.”

That’s the most promising stat on MOOCs I’ve seen to date, and it’s exciting to think about the support MOOCs offer to both higher-ability and lower-ability students in each course. A high-performing student can extend her understanding of the material by choosing to watch additional video, perform additional assignments, and engage with the material outside class in a structured manner. Students in a course they find especially difficult can take advantage of the added support of being able to view video lectures, pausing and rewinding the professor at their own pace and on their own schedule, plus getting access to online forums with question and answer boards where hundreds or thousands of students share insights and engage in the subject matter with one another, with teaching assistants, and often with the professors themselves.

UNG recently announced its participation in the University System-wide Coursera partnership, and I look forward to our contribution to our own students’ learning and to that of the greater Coursera community. I’ve been slowly building a repertoire of video lessons and tutorials for a couple of my computer science courses, and I hope to carve out the time in the next semester or two to begin building a Coursera-quality online course that could be of benefit to thousands. What more could a professor want?

About Bryson Payne

Author of Teach Your Kids to Code, Speaker, and Professor of Computer Science at the University of North Georgia.

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