Massive Open Online Courses



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One of the hottest issues in higher education these days is the recent explosion of free, online courses.

Universities are grappling with their impact on teaching and on liberal arts education.

News Hour correspondent Spencer Michaels has our story.

Tracy Lippincott, who works in a San Francisco bar, is taking a college course in her apartment, online, on how to reason and argue.

The teacher is Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, professor of ethics at Duke University in North Carolina.

And the class is free.

Tracy Lippincott, Online Student: “This concept is really short, little lectures, which is great because you can watch one, and then think about it and react. And you don’t have to watch a whole hour like you would in class.

“Think Again” is a class presented by a one-year-old, for-profit startup called Coursera, currently the nation’s largest provider of free online courses.

One-hundred-seventy thousand students from around the world have signed up for it.

The classes are called MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses, and they may be revolutionizing higher education.

Online learning is nothing new — colleges have been offering class, usually for a fee and for credit, for years. More than six million Americans are taking some type of online course.

But MOOC course are different: they’re much bigger . . . they use new technology . . . they often feature well-known professors . . . and they don’t cost anything.

Hundreds of these college-level courses are currently being offered over the internet. More than two million students have enrolled in Coursera classes — though the completion rate is low.

Daphne Koller, a computer science professor at Stanford, is one of Coursera’s founders.

Daphne Koller, Co-Founder, Coursera: “I think that by opening up education for free to everyone around the world, we are going to turn education — high quality education — from a privilege to a basic human right, so that anyone — no matter their social, economic, or family circumstances — has access to the best education.”

Those lofty goals, the experience of teaching thousands of students — and the possibility of future profits — are what got these courses going.

Professors from top universities are signing up, even though they are not paid by the providers.

Eventually, universities may share revenues they receive, when there are revenues, with the professors.

And those star professors have inspired intense student interest in the courses, says Coursera’s other co-founder, Andrew Ng.

Andrew Ng, Co-Founder, Coursera: “Most people today will never have access to Princeton standard, Caltech course.

But now, if you wake up tomorrow morning, you decide you want to take a Caltech class, you can just sign up for one.

And it’s free!

Math teacher Salman Kahn started providing free, online classes in 2010, out of his house, arguing that new approaches to teaching were needed.

He inspired Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun and colleague Peter Novak to put a course on artificial intelligence online just last year.

Sebastian Thrun, Founder, Udacity: “And to our surprise, 160,000 students signed up. We managed to graduate 23,000 students, at Stanford graduate level quality, in a specialized subject area called “Artificial Intelligence, which means Peter and I taught more students that all the professors in the world combined in the same subject area.”

Journalist: “Were you amazed by this or did you expect it?”

Sebastian Thrun, Founder, Udacity: “I was blown away, and it changed my life.”

After that success, Thrun founded “Udacity”, a fast growing startup in Palo Alto, financed with venture capital money, offering classes in science, technology, engineering and math.

Universities came on board, hoping to reach more students than they previously could and to improve instruction, both on and off campus using online technology.

Thrun says early results are promising.

Sebastian Thrun, Founder, Udacity: “We have some data on how it works. For some of the classes we’ve shown that the average point score of students taking those classes online is higher — significantly higher — than taking it in the classroom.

It’s kind of mind blowing.”

He says teachers are learning new strategies that are more effective than the traditional lecture.

Sebastian Thrun, Founder, Udacity: “It’s not my lecturing that changes the students, but the student exercise. So our courses feel very much like video games; you are being bombarded with excises after exercises after exercises.

That’s very different from the way I teach at Stanford where I’m much more in lecturing mode.”

At Coursera, Ng says online courses are not dominated by a few, aggressive, students in the classroom.

Andrew Ng, Co-Founder, Coursera: “On the online website, we have these things we call “video quizzes”; the video pauses and a question pops up. Every single student sees the video pause. Every single student gets to attempt to answer, not just the one smart kid in the first row.”

Daphne Koller, Co-Founder, Coursera: “Every single instructor that has taught a course online has told us that it’s changed profoundly the way they teach their on-campus students.”

The University of California at Berkeley has decided to partner with another MOOC provider called EdX, a not-for-profit at Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Computer science professor, Armando Fox, who heads campus online learning, lectures about the beauty and joy of computing. As he talks with visual aids, his lecture is taped by a technician, who will send it to EdX, where it will be posted online, a free class that is identical to what his students in Berkeley are receiving.

Armando Fox, University of California Berkeley: “This is an opportunity that I think none of us has ever seen before. We can essentially teach the world.

We got an email from one student who lived in the Gaza Strip. And he was apologizing that his homework was always late because they only get six hours of electricity per day, and he was using some of that electricity budget to take our course.

As an instructor, there’s no higher compliment than that.”

With on-campus students watching lectures in basic materials online, MOOCs provide the opportunity for instructors to use class time for discussions and exercises, a so-called “flipped classroom”.

As a bonus, Fox says, the information students furnish when they take online courses is providing valuable data about learning.

Armando Fox, University of California Berkeley: “With MOOCs, with thousands of students taking a quiz, as instructors, we can now put some science into asking, which are the hardest quiz questions? Which questions might tell us who of the superstar students might be?

MOOCs startups are still trying to figure out how to make money. Udacity is getting revenue from several companies like Google, and provide specialized courses. Coursera is charging potential employers for providing names of high scoring students.

And eventually students may pay for credits transferrable to colleges. So far, students can only earn a certificate when they complete a course.

Almost no collages are providing credits for MOOCs . . . at least not yet.

At Stanford and other elite universities around the country, undergraduate tuition plus room and board run about $54,000 a year.

At Berkeley, a public university, it’s about $30,000 depending on where you live.

The big question is, what do you get for that, that a free, online course with a stellar professor wouldn’t give you?

Daphne Koller, Co-Founder, Coursera: “I don’t think that you could give a Stanford education online in the same way as I don’t think that Facebook gives you a social life.”

Susan Holms is a professor of statistics at Stanford. She fears that budget conscious colleges may use online education to replace instructors and save money.

Susan Holmes, Stanford University: “People will think it will be much cheaper to hire people who aren’t trained with PhDs, and to make students watch courses, and use graduate students or even undergraduates as advisors.”

But even more important, Holmes is worried that MOOCs could damage a key university goal: providing a liberal arts education where students learn to write and express themselves.

Daphne Koller, Co-Founder, Coursera: “And that is done though a interaction with students. The professors meet with the students, advises the students, and the students also have their colleagues to talk to, their peers.”

The difficulty of providing personal contact also concerns Coursera’s founders, but they think they are addressing it with online study groups or forums.

Andrew Ng, Co-Founder, Coursera: “Learning is social, and we learn best when we have classmates we can discuss things with.

When you teach a class with 100,000 students, what that means that if a student thinks of some topic, no matter what time of day you are thinking about it, there will be someone in some time zone awake thinking about the same thing you are, that discuss it with you.”

Still the problem of personal contact is getting lots of attention, from students and from teachers.

Tracy Lippincott, Online Student: “The thing that I miss is actually personal contact with the professor. I like to be able to get personalized advice from the person who is in charge. And maybe a little bit of a thumbs up, just a little bit of positive reinforcement.

In terms of between students, you can create that.”

In fact Lippincott did create that by organizing a recent meet up for students taking the Think Again class in a trendy bar in San Francisco, where she works. Anyone can attend.

Some students taking MOOC classes are doing it just to learn. Others hope a certificate will help them get a job. Still others want to eventually get college credit.

Figuring out how to get colleges to accept MOOC classes for credit is a major thrust of the fast-growing, constantly changing online teaching industry right now.

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1. Students in San Francisco can only take online course from universities in California. True or false?

2. Is Coursera the first organization to offer online classes?

3. The MOOCs completion rate is 98%. Is this correct or incorrect? Why might the completion rate be low?

4. According to Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller, is MOOCs bringing about a fundamental change to society?

5. Are massive open online courses expensive for students? Are they very profitable for the platforms and universities?

6. Sebastian Thrun, the artificial intelligence professor said, “I was blown away, and it changed my life.” What does this mean? What happened as a result?

7. Students attending lectures have higher exam scores and grades than online students. Is this right or wrong? Why do they score higher? How does the online format differ from the traditional lecture?

8. What are the advantages and disadvantages of MOOCs?


A. Have you enrolled in a university course online? What about your friends?

B. Are universities in your country involved in MOOCs?

C. Would you prefer having university courses online? What would be the ideal format or organization?

D. Some or many people are totally against online education. What do you think?

E. What do you think will happen in the future?

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