Massive Online Education Puts Internet to a Good Use

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have reached an unexpected peak in popularity this year. With universities like Stanford and MIT offering free versions of their courses online and for-profit companies like Coursera becoming more well-known, more students than ever are participating in the online education craze. Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng said their company was growing “faster than Facebook.” In fact, he might be right about the industry as a whole.

Coursera, founded only last last January, is one of the largest sites with over 1.7 million users enrolled. edX, a nonprofit from Harvard and MIT, enrolled 370,000 in their first official round of courses this year. Udacity, another company similar to Coursera, enrolled 739,000. Even Khan Academy, which is less of an online course program and more of an ever-growing encyclopedia of short video lessons, has had its videos viewed hundreds of millions of times.

Online education brings the classroom to you. | Illustration by Evan Caughey

The benefits of MOOCs are great. For the price of an Internet connection, or even just a membership to the local public library, anyone can participate in university-level education provided by some of the top universities in the nation. There are no limits to enrollment and no bounds on location. To create a sense of community, most online services offer message-boards and forums where students can get together to ask questions and study together.

Since no professor could (or would want to) grade 100,000 tests on their own, students work together to peer grade their assignments, which turns out to be surprisingly accurate (and a learning experience in itself). Stanford University professor and co-founder of Coursera Daphne Koller also suggests an interesting benefit to this model: online education provides a unique opportunity to collect data that can be used to improve education, like statistics on students’ study habits and test scores from thousands of varied students.

Despite its popularity, online education is subject to considerable critique. Some educators worry that online classes will put them out of jobs and lessen the meaning of a degree. Others doubt whether the current strategy of online education is even worth pursuing. Whether students are actively paying attention during lectures or even doing the homework on their own is difficult to say for online classes. Todd Tauber, himself a strategic planner for mobile education, addresses this main concern elegantly, citing the basic fact that only 4% of enrolled students passed MIT’s first online course’s final.

Of over 150,000 enrolled in the course, only half of them opened the first assignment. This attrition continued, and by the end, only 5,800 passed the final exam. This drop-out rate might be a sign of the relatively low commitment of enrollment, but it might also represent the boredom or confusion of students whose needs aren’t being addressed by the massive online format. Tauber blames the rate on the lack of adapting that many online courses have done to fit their new medium. With thousands of enrolled students throughout the world, traditional methods of evaluation aren’t practical. Students can’t be assessed in a typical manner and there’s also no guarantee that they are even looking at the online materials, let alone studying them, he argues.

Some programs, like MIT’s OpenCourseWare, have simply taken old materials and lectures, video-taped them in a typical classroom setting, and uploaded them to the site. While the lecturers are often above average in quality and the material is thorough, this isn’t much different from the typical classroom experience. Others, like Udacity, have tailored their courses to the online education market. Offering specially-made videos, complete with pauses for built-in quizzes and interactive questions to keep students engaged, the style of Udacity represents the first major change from the chalkboard-style learning of the past.

It’s also worth considering that the majority of available online courses are only introductory or basic in level. Very few offered courses represent the most challenging material that is available in a traditional college program. Some programs don’t even offer high-level instruction at all. Codecademy, a program strictly for teaching students to learn to code, has been consistently criticized for its lack of actually teaching the skills needed to be a programmer. Codecademy teaches students in a carefully designed environment with structured examples and basic frameworks for answering provided. Students do succeed at the assessments; hundreds of thousands have already completed the first set of lessons. Whether individuals are getting the depth they need in a course tailored to meet the basic needs of thousands, however, is still undecided.

One study, new and still controversial, suggests that students do as well in new technological learning situations as they would in more traditional ones. A nonprofit organization called Ithaka recently conducted a study to evaluate the machine-guided learning style of education that MOOCS use. The study, called “Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities,” had 605 randomly-assigned students take an introductory statistics courses at six public universities. The students “took the course in a ‘hybrid’ format: they met in person with their instructors for one hour a week; otherwise, they worked through lessons and exercises using an artificially intelligent learning platform.”

The results were impressive but at times unsurprising. To the credit of MOOCs everywhere, students who participated in hybrid-style learning “took about one-quarter less time to achieve essentially the same learning outcomes as traditional-format students,” according to the researchers. Even more unsurprising was that students found the online classes less engaging and more dull than the classroom. Some students are also cited having felt as though they learned less online, even when they scored the same on tests as the comparison students in regular classrooms. Even despite these disadvantages, on pure teaching alone, the automated systems came out equally successful (and sometimes quicker) than comparable traditional formats.

Critics have said that online courses have yet to make a lasting impression on the world of education thus far. And while this is arguably true, it doesn’t mean that they won’t in the near future. The online education format has the indubitable power to change the current educational environment for good. A success in the American system could be revolutionary for countries where education is harder to come by. If online education providers are careful to address the unique needs and challenges of their medium, current worries about the cost and availability of a degree will soon become obsolete as students everywhere participate in higher education together from the comfort of their own homes.

Ashley Hansberry

Ashley Hansberry

Ashley Hansberry (CAS '14) is the Senior Editor at The Quad. She is a senior studying Computer Science and Linguistics who likes writing about robots, technology, and education. When she's not living in the computer science lab, you can find her wearing animal earrings or admiring puppies she sees on the street.

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