How MOOCs are going to change the world

Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is the description given to the growing range of classes offered by sites such as Coursera, Udacity and Academic Room.  Most of them are free and produced by such reputable institutions as Stanford University and Princeton, so this is top quality, university-standard material. I have taken two of the Stanford courses recently and would like to report my feedback and make a few observations.

Nick Parlante’s Computer Science 101 is a gentle introduction, with 29 video lectures spanning six weeks, which you can view at your own convenience, pause and replay as often as you need to. Each is 5-30 minutes long and embedded with quizzes and practical coding problems. The nature of the content lends itself to multiple-choice questions and tests of students’ ability to manipulate RGB images in Javascript, all of which are scored instantly. A couple of hours a week probably covers it. An overall score of 80% earns a ‘pass’.

Human-Computer Interaction, presented by Scott Klemmer, is a more challenging beast. This nominally five-week course actually took nearer seven. It covers design heuristics, prototyping, design evaluation, multivariate testing and chi-squared analysis, among other things, all of which are hammered home by practical weekly assignments with hard deadlines. In addition to the videos and quizzes, students are challenged to observe, interview and photograph computer users and identify design opportunities. This results in each student making a working app, with every step along the way subject to peer review and grading, which proved to be the best part of the experience. It would be easy to spend 10-15 hours a week on some assignments, so there is a much greater investment and commitment than there would be otherwise.

Peer review exposes students to the work of many others and the levels of creativity and effort are inspiring. Every student must grade sample work to a certain standard before being let loose on his colleagues’. This relies on a simple but rigorous grading rubric. It is possible to take this course without tackling the assignments, but the experience would not be nearly as challenging or rewarding. Again, an 80% overall mark gains a ‘pass’.

In both these classes, the purpose-made video lectures are supported by lecture notes and supplementary reading lists. There are forums for discussion of the lectures, assignments and resources, where students share useful URLs along with advice and guidance. Comments include a barrage of gripes and groans about deadlines, pleadings for special consideration, criticism of the content, the peer grading and everything else besides. I hope Nick, Scott and their associates don’t worry too much about these, though the courses would benefit from a few tweaks here and there.

In addition to Computer Science, categories listed by Coursera include: Humanities and Social Sciences, Mathematics and Statistics, Healthcare, Medicine and Biology, Economics, Finance and Business, Society, Networks and Information.


I would suggest a more explicit statement at the outset about the content of the course, the likely time commitment and the pre-requisite ability levels of students. I am sure the data from these maiden outings will show how the original uptake dwindled from week to week as people fell by the wayside.* A key performance indicator would be to maximise the percentage of the original class that completes the course and passes. Some of the drop-off will be due to the lack of commitment due to the course being free of charge, which is rather a conundrum. Perhaps a nominal fee would increase students’ commitment.

I see no reason why students could not sit the CS101 course whenever they want, as it could be entirely automated. The peer review element of the H-CI class precludes this, but it could probably be run several times a year. I must say that I was expecting a more creative use of the medium, but perhaps this will develop over time. There is no formal accreditation of your pass beyond the ‘Statement of Accomplishment’ (below) and it would not be difficult to fake this or have someone take the course in your name.

Statement of Accomplishment

Statement of Accomplishment for Coursera’s Computer Science 101 course

How will they change the world?


MOOCs are bound to have an impact on the relationship between academia and the wider community. They represent the democratisation of learning. Lecturers, from would-be media stars to subject evangelists who want to make a big impression can now reach a global audience online. They are great PR for their institutions, and maybe a future source of revenue, perhaps in return for formal accreditation. I wonder if academics might soon devote more attention to producing MOOCs than to their research projects.

The campus

The student population will also be affected. Although these courses are still in their infancy, the organisers are picking up valuable data and learning from trial and error (an iterative process championed in H-CI). Who is to say that, ultimately, they won’t be able to offer degree courses online? And, if so, what are the implications for university funding and the future of the campus? Some will say that a degree course without tutorials would be worthless, but I have heard complaints about the poor tutorial standards at several colleges, so what’s to lose? And don’t forget, the Open University has been offering degree courses by distance learning for many years, with great success.


MOOCs may soon offer UDACITY  and others a disruptive role in the commercial recruitment industry as this for-profit enterprise explores the possibility of selling (with permission) the contact details of course graduates to potential recruiters. And how long will it be before businesses recognise the benefits of a way for their staff to be educated, at minimum cost, with minimum disruption and maximum convenience, by a recognised institution? Will there be much overlap and consequent negative impact on commercial training businesses?

Everybody else

But the biggest benefits from MOOCs will be the learning opportunities they offer, for the first time, to everybody in the developed and developing world who has access to the internet but not previously to further education. As the depth and breadth of courses on offer continues to grow, and their quality to improve, the opportunity for the masses to achieve their potential could transform their fortunes, along with those of their families and communities.

Whilst these courses are available only in English, necessarily limiting access to students with reasonable fluency, we can only hope that foreign language alternatives will become available. This could be achieved either by translating the original material at source, or by local institutions creating their own content, which could lead to copyright wrangles. The production costs would not be prohibitive, but the process presumes a certain level of infrastructure.

What are you waiting for?

MOOCs are definitely a force for good – a real success story for the internet. They promise to educate, empower and transform the lives of millions of people around the world. They must be nurtured, funded and spread widely.

They should also be experienced, so as soon as you finish reading, take a look at  CourseraUdacity or Academic Room and decide which course to start with. I guarantee you will find it a more stimulating and rewarding experience than slumping in front of the TV.

*PS: Since writing this piece I have seen the stats for the courses I took: CS101 was passed by 10,615 of the original 32,184 students; in contrast, only 791 (2.7%) completed the H-CI assignments, of the 29,105 who watched the first video, ranging from teenagers to over-65s, from 124 countries.

This entry was posted in Media, Personal and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How MOOCs are going to change the world

  1. Pingback: An open request to online course organisers | pootering

  2. Pingback: Organizational Analysis | pootering

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s