will Massive Open Online courses
change how we teach?
In the laSt decade, the Creative Commons philosophy of free- ly sharing information and the pervasiveness of the In- ternet have created many new
opportunities for teaching and learning. MIT OpenCourseWare spearheaded the sharing of high-quality,
university-level courses. While these
materials were not originally designed for individuals engaged in self-study, approximately half of OCW’s
traffic is from these users. 6 Recently
the use of learning management systems (LMSs), such as the proprietary
Blackboard or open-source Moodle
software, has become ubiquitous.
In typical use, LMSs support the
structure of conventional courses in
an online setting. Lectures and reading material are assigned, homework
is scheduled, and discussions are facilitated at regular intervals. As in conventional coursework, classes are usually closed communities, with students
registering (and paying) for credit-bearing coursework.
One of the first initiatives to bring
together open course philosophy and
LMSs was David Cormier’s “Massive
Open Online Course,” or MOOC. In
his vision, “Although it may share in
some of the conventions of an ordinary
course, such as a predefined timeline
and weekly topics for consideration,
a MOOC generally carries no fees, no
prerequisites other than Internet access and interest, no predefined expectations for participation, and no formal accreditation.” 9
This idea—albeit in a more conventional course structure—exploded
into the public consciousness with the
massive open artificial intelligence
(AI) course developed and conducted
by Stanford faculty Sebastian Thrun
and Peter Norvig last fall. Announced
in the summer of 2011, the course received wide publicity, and attracted
about 160,000 registered students by
its launch in October 2011. Approximately 23,000 students completed
the 10-week course. 8 I was one of the
23,000—along with a cohort of 16 students, both graduate and undergraduate, from my home institution (the
computer science department at the
University of Massachusetts Lowell).
Since the fall AI 2011 course, there
has been much activity in this space.
Thrun has set up a for-profit company, Udacity, to extend his initial work;
Stanford and others are running courses using Coursera; MIT created MITx
and is partnering with Harvard on edX;
and there are other initiatives. 4 The remainder of this column describes my
experiences taking the fall 2011 course
alongside my students and facilitating their learning. This is followed by
some reflections. It seems likely this
new breed of MOOCs will have impact
on education at the university level,
particularly for technical majors such
as computer science.
the Fall 2011
The Stanford course consisted of
weekly lectures—two or three 45-min-
ute topics that were broken up into 15
or 20 short videos. Most of the individ-
ual videos had embedded questions
(multiple-choice or fill-in-the-value).
At the end of each mini-lesson, the
video image transformed into a Web
form where students fill in answers.
Already logged in, the class server
graded the students immediately. Af-
ter submitting, students were shown
an explanation video.