Clockwise, from top left: an online course in circuits and electronics with an M.I.T. professor (edX); statistics, Stanford (Udacity); machine learning, Stanford (Coursera); organic chemistry, University of Illinois, Urbana (Coursera).
By LAURA PAPPANO
Published: November 2, 2012
IN late September, as workers applied joint compound to new office walls, hoodie-clad colleagues who had just met were working together on deadline. Film editors, code-writing interns and “edX fellows” — grad students and postdocs versed in online education — were translating videotaped lectures into MOOCs, or massive open online courses. As if anyone needed reminding, a row of aqua Post-its gave the dates the courses would “go live.”
The paint is barely dry, yet edX
, the nonprofit start-up from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has 370,000 students this fall in its first official courses. That’s nothing. Coursera
, founded just last January, has reached more than 1.7 million — growing “faster than Facebook,” boasts Andrew Ng, on leave from Stanford to run his for-profit MOOC provider.
“This has caught all of us by surprise,” says David Stavens, who formed a company called Udacity
with Sebastian Thrun and Michael Sokolsky after more than 150,000 signed up for Dr. Thrun’s “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” last fall, starting the revolution that has higher education gasping. A year ago, he marvels, “we were three guys in Sebastian’s living room and now we have 40 employees full time.”
“I like to call this the year of disruption,” says Anant Agarwal, president of edX, “and the year is not over yet.”
MOOCs have been around for a few years as collaborative techie learning events, but this is the year everyone wants in. Elite universities are partnering with Coursera at a furious pace. It now offers courses from 33 of the biggest names in postsecondary education, including Princeton, Brown, Columbia and Duke. In September, Google unleashed a MOOC-building online tool, and Stanford unveiled Class2Go
with two courses.
Nick McKeown is teaching one of them, on computer networking, with Philip Levis (the one with a shock of magenta hair in the introductory video). Dr. McKeown sums up the energy of this grand experiment when he gushes, “We’re both very excited.” Casually draped over auditorium seats, the professors also acknowledge that they are not exactly sure how this MOOC stuff works.
“We are just going to see how this goes over the next few weeks,” says Dr. McKeown.
WHAT IS A MOOC ANYWAY?
Traditional online courses charge tuition, carry credit and limit enrollment to a few dozen to ensure interaction with instructors. The MOOC, on the other hand, is usually free, credit-less and, well, massive.
Because anyone with an Internet connection can enroll, faculty can’t possibly respond to students individually. So the course design — how material is presented and the interactivity — counts for a lot. As do fellow students. Classmates may lean on one another in study groups organized in their towns, in online forums or, the prickly part, for grading work.
The evolving form knits together education, entertainment (think gaming) and social networking. Unlike its antecedent, open courseware — usually written materials or videotapes of lectures that make you feel as if you’re spying on a class from the back of the room — the MOOC is a full course made with you in mind.
The medium is still the lecture. Thanks to Khan Academy
’s free archive of snappy instructional videos, MOOC makers have gotten the memo on the benefit of brevity: 8 to 12 minutes is typical. Then — this is key — videos pause perhaps twice for a quiz to make sure you understand the material or, in computer programming, to let you write code. Feedback is electronic. Teaching assistants may monitor discussion boards. There may be homework and a final exam.
The MOOC certainly presents challenges. Can learning be scaled up this much? Grading is imperfect, especially for nontechnical subjects. Cheating is a reality. “We found groups of 20 people in a course submitting identical homework,” says David Patterson, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who teaches software engineering, in a tone of disbelief at such blatant copying; Udacity and edX now offer proctored exams.
Some students are also ill prepared for the university-level work. And few stick with it. “Signing up for a class is a lightweight process,” says Dr. Ng. It might take just five minutes, assuming you spend two devising a stylish user name. Only 46,000 attempted the first assignment in Dr. Ng’s course on machine learning last fall. In the end, he says, 13,000 completed the class and earned a certificate — from him, not Stanf