Differences of Opinion on Online Courses

Evolving perspectives on where and how edX and HarvardX courses work—and don't

As edX , Coursera, and Udacity continue to build and launch massive open online courses (MOOCs)—and other would-be contenders approach the field—evidence and opinions are accumulating about how best to use such courses, the experience of learning this way, and possible applications of the evolving technology. Herewith, a survey of some recent perspectives, and some news updates on the users of an early HarvardX course and Coursera’s expansion into professional education.

Where the Learners Are

MOOCs have been touted as opening avenues to education for huge audiences in developing countries, but a pressing U.S. application lies in providing remedial or entry-level required classes for students at community colleges and financially hard-pressed public colleges and universities. Following an experiment in which San Jose State University (SJSU) blended edX’s course on electronic circuits with its classroom teaching, enhancing student learning, the institution has extended that experiment to 11 California campuses and agreed with edX to adapt courses in sciences, humanities, business, and social sciences.

Tamar Lewin of The New York Times, who is reporting a series of stories on online education, put this venture into a broader context:

Nearly half of all undergraduates in the United States arrive on campus needing remedial work before they can begin regular credit-bearing classes. That early detour can be costly, leading many to drop out, often in heavy debt and with diminished prospects of finding a job.

Meanwhile, shrinking state budgets have taken a heavy toll at public institutions, reducing the number of seats available in classes students must take to graduate. In California alone, higher education cuts have left hundreds of thousands of college students without access to classes they need.

Of the SJSU-edX blended-learning experiment, she wrote, “It is hard to say…how much the improved results come from the edX online materials, and how much from the shift to classroom sessions focusing on small group projects, rather than lectures.” (Lewin also covered a separate SJSU venture with Udacity that provides online mentors around the clock to help students through online basic-math courses—another pilot being expanded in scope and subjects.)

Lewin reported the reaction of Josh Jarrett, a higher-education officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is supporting development of MOOCs for basic and remedial education, in an effort to enhance student completion of higher education:

“For us, 2012 was all about trying to tilt some of the MOOC attention toward the more novice learner, the low-income and first-generation students,” he said. “And 2013 is about blending MOOCs into college courses where there is additional support, and students can get credit. While some low-income young adults can benefit from what I call the free-range MOOCs, the research suggests that most are going to need more scaffolding, more support.” [He continued,] “We want to bring all the hyperbole around MOOCs down to reality, and really see at a granular level that’s never before been available, how well they work for underserved students.”

SJSU, Lewin added, hopes to have fully online offerings for introductory and basic courses, and blended instruction for higher-level courses.

As states from California to Florida explore expanding online education for credit, either through legislative mandates, financial support, or both (the excellent reports from Inside Higher Ed’s Ry Rivard are cited here), “State U Online,” a policy paper from the New America Foundation, outlines a strategy for public systems to adopt online courses aggressively, separating them and credit from any given institution, so students could access needed classes flexibly.

Preparing and Teaching a MOOC

Two teachers have written for The Chronicle of Higher Education about their experiences in devising and delivering MOOCs.

Karen Head, an assistant professor at Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Literature, Media, and Communication, received a Gates Foundation grant to explore teaching first-year writing in a massive, online course, to be offered via Coursera. She has blogged on her progress for the Chronicle, reporting in an April 29 dispatch, “The time demands, logistics, and politics of developing a MOOC will bury you—particularly if you do not have tenure.” Preparing three lectures for delivery during a single week, she noted, required her team to devote “about 20 hours to[?] planning and developing content,” plus an additional eight hours to rehearse the lectures and four hours to record them; editing, done elsewhere, followed. Further work was required to incorporate quizzes or work to be done during pauses in the lectures.

Lecturing to a camera, she reported, was not wholly satisfying because “I crave the connection I have with students in a traditional course [and] this MOOC format is in direct opposition to everything I believe good teaching to be.” Once the course launches, she expects to have many more and new sorts of connections, but “I will never know” these unseen learners as well as students in a real classroom—an outcome that hampers her own understanding of how to teach best.

To date, Head noted, “there is simply no way to adequately evaluate the writing of thousands of students”—a prerequisite for certifying their work for credit. Instead, the course will rely on peer assessment. As for the promise of machine grading: “For now, I will say that such mechanisms remain unable to provide substantive evaluation….”

Wesleyan president Michael S. Roth somehow found the time to bring “The Modern and the Postmodern” online, via Coursera. His Chronicle account, “My Modern Experience Teaching a MOOC,” also published April 29, perhaps reflects his freedom from the untenured professor Head’s anxieties and the more advanced nature of his course. As the first liberal-arts college to join Coursera, Wesleyan was obviously open to experimentation. Roth embarked on his own experiment with some skepticism: “It seemed clear to me that whatever learning happened online via lectures, quizzes, and peer-graded essays was very different from what I’d experienced in residential colleges.”

But he found the course, once launched, opened up new possibilities. While Wesleyan prides itself on diversity, it was a new experience to have students forming Spanish and Portuguese study groups, and self-assembling study sections in Bulgaria, Russia, and India. Three couples—all with Ph.D. degrees—enrolled together, while some students provided excellent lists of supplemental readings. “My MOOC,” he wrote, “has impressed upon me aspects of difference and inclusion I don’t often encounter on campus”—among them, students who reported never having had the opportunity to pursue higher education.

As for reports that many students who enroll fail to complete a course (see below for the experience of Harvard’s David Malan in his computer-sciences offering via edX), Roth wrote, that is “like saying someone ‘failed to complete’ The New Yorker in the week she received it.”

Reflecting on the communications he received from students, Roth concluded:

Turns out the “massive” part of these open courses is the least interesting thing about them. My students don’t feel like a mass. It’s the differences among them, and how they bridge those differences through social networks, that energize their MOOC experience and mine.

Studying Online

In two recent newspaper articles, adults have described their experiences taking online courses, clearly without credit or credentials in mind.

“When it comes to Massive Open Online Courses,” wrote A.J. Jacobs, an editor at large at Esquire, in “Two Cheers for Web U,” published in The New York Times, “you can forget about the Socratic method. The professor is, in most cases, out of students’ reach, only slightly more accessible than the pope or Thomas Pynchon.” One professor described the class as “‘conversations in which we’re going to talk about this course one to one’—except that one side (the student’s) doesn’t ‘get to talk back directly.’ I’m not sure this fits the traditional definition of a conversation.” The result, given MOOCs’ huge enrollment, is “a strange paradox: these professors are simultaneously the most and least accessible teachers in history.”

Jacobs enrolled in 11 courses, principally from Coursera, but he also “dabbled” in edX and Udacity offerings. Most of the professors were well informed and entertaining, he reported. But “While MOOCS are a great equalizer when it comes to students around the world, they are a great unequalizer when it comes to teachers,” giving rise to a list of online celebrity professors who come to define their fields—a possible risk to “the biodiversity of the academic ecosystem.”

He found the courses supremely convenient: “MOOCs shift control to the student,” who can, like Jacobs, watch lectures while on the treadmill or eating, and at whatever speed he liked. Nonetheless, he was on his way to completing just two of those he signed up for—suggesting the need for “a virtual dunce cap.” And he found out why it is easy to cheat in MOOC exercises: he was able to Google answers to quiz questions for a genetics course.

He reserved his lowest grade for interaction with the teaching faculty, and urged experiments with “an online-offline hybrid model,” student study groups in various locations, and so on. Student-to-student interactions, on the other hand, were relatively easy to set up via social media, course discussion boards, and even face-to-face meetings. Some of the latter proved unsatisfying, however, when peers failed to show up at appointed times and places.

All that said, Jacobs found that the MOOCs “provided me with the thrill of relatively painless self-improvement and an easy introduction to heady topics.”

In a somewhat gimmicky exercise, Jonathan Haber, a writer in Lexington, Massachusetts, enrolled in 32 courses—including the HarvardX versions of Michael Sandel’s “Justice” and Gregory Nagy’s “The Ancient Greet Hero,” and Wesleyan president Roth’s class on modernism and postmodernism (Haber is a Wesleyan graduate)—aiming to earn a “one-year MOOC BA” by the end of 2013. The Boston Globe’s higher education reporter, Marcella Bombardieri, interviewed him about his experiences. (Haber blogs about his experiences here.)

Among his observations from the Globe article:

  • I’m taking a couple of Harvard courses. They just ask you to answer a couple of multiple-choice questions at the end of each lecture and do some readings and contribute to discussions. They are very meaningful courses, but it’s basically reading comprehension. Even though one of the best courses I’m taking is this edX course on the Greek hero....It’s really challenging. Even though they only ask you a few questions, they are the right ones.
  • [On the course discussion boards] Weirdly, it works best when fewer people contribute. In my Harvard Justice course everybody is required to respond to a…prompt every week. But because thousands of people are taking part in this course, whenever you type in something really clever, or you see something clever and you respond to it and think you are starting a conversation, you log in five minutes later and it’s a thousand comments down now.… At least half the people taking the courses are outside of the US, meaning that English is not everybody’s first language. Generally I found that any discussion that goes over 25 comments is gravitating toward the mean, which is the same old stale left/right debate. If the discussion goes on over 25 comments usually it’s because they’re having a fight over Ayn Rand.
  • [On peer grading of assignments] There are 25,000 students enrolled in the class...so they have set up [a] peer grading mechanism where every student who submits a paper is also required to grade three of them, and to grade them based on a specified rubric....A rubric that is simple enough for anybody to use is going to generate papers that anybody can write, in which case how meaningful are those going to be? Frankly, most of the papers I have written so far are, compare Baudelaire and Freud, now compare Rousseau and Marx.

In all, Haber concluded, the MOOCs now available are “an interesting work in progress.”

Drawing a Line: Amherst and Duke

In mid April, the faculty of Amherst College, which had been wooed as a partner by edX, voted not to join. As numerous reports noted, Amherst is the prototype liberal-arts institution: its faculty members focus on seminars and other personal instruction. After the institution rejected affiliating with for-profit vendors (including 2U, which seeks to offer courses for credit), it explored an edX contract. But at the April 16 vote, a majority preferred to chart their own course for Amherst online.

Among the concerns, Inside Higher Ed noted, were the degree of compatibility between a “purposefully small residential community” focused on education “through close colloquy” and the inherently massive nature of MOOC instruction. (Witness the comments, above, on the difficulty of effecting teacher-student interaction in some MOOC courses.) There were also concerns about conferring Amherst-branded course-completion certificates to edX students, thus diluting the meaning of the college’s education. Expense—reportedly $2 million for a five-year affiliation—was an issue, too. Professors on the losing side of the vote, who favored an edX connection, said they hoped to influence online course design by importing the small-college perspective.

In a subsequent Crimson report on the vote, Amherst life-sciences professor Stephen A. George was quoted as saying, “Ultimately, we’re trying to help our residential students, and [it] wasn’t clear exactly what the MOOCs would allow us to do which we couldn’t do in other ways.”

edX released this comment on the decision: "We are disappointed that Amherst College will not be joining edX. Over the past several months we have had many productive meetings and wide-ranging discussions with Amherst's administration and faculty. Amherst is a wonderful institution and we would have been delighted to have them join. We acknowledge that online educational platforms are not the appropriate solution for all courses or all faculty."

On April 25, the Arts & Sciences Council at Duke voted narrowly against letting Duke undergraduates receive credit for online courses offered through 2U, killing that institution’s participation in that venture. Although the courses—to be created by elite institutions—are intended for much smaller enrollments than MOOCs, and are to be accompanied by discussion sections, they raise the same issues of credentialing and crediting that were raised at Amherst. Duke remains a Coursera partner, offering MOOCs created by its faculty through that platform for free (but not for credit).

Who the Students Are

The HarvardX May newsletter links to the CS50x blog by David J. Malan, senior lecturer on computer science, who took his wildly popular introductory course online via edX last fall. He notes that 150,349 students registered for the course, of whom 100,953 “engaged” (watched content, asked questions, and used the course apps—whether or not they submitted any work). Some 10,905 students (11 percent of those who “engaged”) submitted an initial problem set; 5,259 took the first quiz; and 1,482 submitted the class project. Ultimately, 1,388 students (0.9 percent of initial registrants) earned certificates; doing so required that they submit all work assignments and achieve scores of 60 percent or higher. In contrast, Malan notes, 703 of 706 students enrolled in CS 50 on campus last fall “completed” the (nonvirtual) course.

Malan’s analytics show that daily engagement trended down toward the end, from nearly 40,000 unique visitors during a peak, early day, to about 2,500 by the end of the course. There was at least one visitor from every country in the world, with Americans accounting for 29 percent of visits, and residents of India, ranked second, accounting for more than 9 percent. According to the respondents, most enrolled to learn about computer science; relatively few were motivated by the prospect of earning the course certificate.

Online Education for Educators

As MOOC organizations seek ways to generate revenue, professional and continuing education courses are a promising opportunity, given the established conventions of paying for such services. (At Harvard, this is obviously a very large business: for the Division of Continuing Education, whose new leader, Huntington D. Lambert, is steeped in online education; for Harvard Business School, which earned $142 million in executive-education tuition in fiscal year 2012, about 50 percent more than its revenue from the M.B.A. program; and for Harvard Medical School.)

It comes as no surprise, then, that Coursera has just deployed a series of professional-development courses for elementary- and secondary-school teachers. The initial announcement offers courses for free. Participating institutions include the College of Education, University of Washington; Curry School of Education, University of Virginia; Johns Hopkins University School of Education; Match Education’s Sposato Graduate School of Education; Peabody College of Education and Human Development, Vanderbilt University; Relay Graduate School of Education; and University of California, Irvine Extension. Coursera also announced affiliations with the American Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Modern Art, and other institutions. The course line-up includes more than two dozen titles, with subjects ranging from practical teaching skills to surveys of early-childhood development.

Can entry into offering courses for K-12 students be far behind? The potential market, and demand among hard-pressed school districts, would seem enormous.


Finally, the digital terrain has become so densely populated so quickly, the Chronicle of Higher Education has offered a diagram of the “Major Players in the MOOC Universe,” flows of funds, and more.

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