MOOCs, Online Education Work. So What’s Next?

The question in higher education over the past couple of years has been: Can people learn effectively from MOOCs? And the answer, after getting through all of the fuss about completion rates and so on, appears to be “yes.”

One of the biggest tests for MOOCs as a valid model of education has been the Georgia Tech MOOC master’s degree in computer science. While the program is only in its second year, the preliminary reports have been positive. More than 2,000 students are expected to start the program come January, and thus far 93% say that they would recommend the program to a friend.

Georgia Tech’s Zvi Galil recently wrote for Huffington Post that the success of this program serves as a proving ground for the MOOC model of education, and for online learning in general. He noted: “…the central innovation was not in the online delivery of the courses, nor in the fact that they lead to a complete degree. Rather, the key point is that the online nature of the degree is affirmed to be immaterial: the online classes are fully the equivalent of on-campus ones, in terms of both education and credentials, at a fraction of the cost” ($7,000 compared to the $46,000 price tag of a traditional CS masters at Georgia Tech).

Significantly, research has also found that it isn’t only already-highly-educated students who are able to learn from MOOCs, but everyone, regardless of their background. The results of a study released last week showed that students across the educational spectrum (from those with less than a high school diploma to physics teachers) showed similar learning gains in an edX MOOC. Now, this doesn’t mean that they all passed with flying colors, but rather that all students improved roughly equally from where they started—i.e., they learned.

Just to put these results in perspective, consider Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s 2011 finding that after two years of college, at least 45% of students show no statistically significant improvements in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or writing skills. Before this research started to come out, it was assumed, for a variety of reasons, that students couldn’t learn in MOOCs. But, a lack of learning in non-traditional education can’t be assumed any more than can the surety of learning be taken for granted in traditional education.

We know that learning does happen in MOOCs, and we have a model, in the Georgia Tech master’s degree, of how to create low-cost MOOC programs that lead to credentials that are just as real as those earned in full-price in-person programs. So now the question becomes: What are we going to do with this knowledge?

If It Were Up to Millennials, Would MOOCs Replace College Entirely?

The results of a new study by QuestionPro Research suggests that Millennials feel pretty good about MOOCs. In fact, a large majority think that MOOCs could replace some types of education entirely.

Before getting into the results, I’ll just qualify them by saying that it’s unclear exactly who the roughly 400 people who completed the survey were or how the survey was conducted. And some of the questions had fairly low response rates. Nevertheless, there may still be some insights into what education might look like in the future.

Here we go:

•  Of the sample, only about one-third overall had heard of MOOCs, but nearly three-quarters of Millennials were familiar with the courses.

•  The most common reason Millennials cited for taking MOOCs was to “prepare for a career,” while most other age groups said they were taking the courses “just for fun.”

•  Around eight out of 10 respondents agreed with each of the following descriptions of MOOCs: “accessible to everyone,” better experience than in a classroom, “increases my knowledge,” “high quality of education,” and “makes me employable.”

•  About 70% of respondents agreed that standard high school, undergraduate, graduate, and trade school education could be replaced by MOOCs within five years. More Millennials believed this to be true than did older respondents.

•  Only 15% of those surveyed thought online education was not very effective or not equivalent to classroom learning. The other 85% were positive or neutral about the issue.

The results are highly preliminary, due to the small and unclear sample population. However, they may signal that ideas about online education and MOOCs are coming to a tipping point. For another good read, check out Jeffrey Selingo’s commentary in today’s Chronicle: MOOC U: The revolution isn’t over.

How Do You Market a MOOC?

Well, here’s a situation Harvard hasn’t had to deal with in a while: no one knows about it, or at least no one knows about its MOOCs.

A study last year found that less than one-quarter of the general public (i.e., those outside higher education) had heard of MOOCs and only 4% claimed to be very familiar with them. If one of the goals of MOOCs is to make money by catering to non-traditional student populations via verified certificates and course sequences, then MOOCs need a serious dose of marketing.

A new article for The Harvard Crimson outlines some of the ways HarvardX is attempting to reach its target audiences. Some of the ideas are typical modern digital marketing practices, such as using social media to engage specific populations. Others are quite innovative. For example, Elisa New, who developed two HarvardX poetry classes, had the Harvard men’s basketball team read a poem about basketball. She recorded a video of the performance and sent it to sports blog SB Nation.

Some other examples of creative MOOC marketing include Penn State’s Moocdemic and last year’s Canvas course “Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC’s The Walking Dead.”

MOOCs may face something of an uphill battle in their attempt to reach new student populations. Can you think of other creative ways MOOCs have been marketed to people outside of higher education? Do you have any great ideas of your own? We’d love to hear about them in the comments.

It’s a MOOC! It’s a Game! It’s Moocdemic!

Penn State is about to release its second run of Moocdemic, a massive multiplayer simulation game run in concert with its MOOC Epidemics – the Dynamics of Infectious Diseases.

The course covers the basics of infectious diseases including their history, how they are spread, and how they can be controlled. The game is a location-based activity in which students use their computers and mobile devices to detect, spread, and control a fictional infectious disease, using social media to share information. Assistant professor and game developer Marcel Salathe commented in Directions Magazine: “The game allows players to experience a global disease outbreak in real time without being exposed to any real risk, other than game addiction.”

Moocdemic is another great example of how MOOCs and other new technologies are pushing the boundaries of traditional education and turning the world into one giant connected classroom.

The course and the game start Monday, September 29, so head over to Coursera and to the game page and sign up. Not only will these be a great deal of fun, but with the Ebola outbreak currently ravaging several countries in Western Africa, the knowledge you will gain in this course couldn’t be more timely.

New Study Finds MOOC Students Really Do Learn

MOOC naysayers will no doubt be very disappointed by the results of a new study from researchers at MIT, Harvard, and Tsinghua University in China suggesting that MOOC students really do learn…perhaps even better than MIT freshman. Here’s the skinny:


The researchers examined student learning in the edX MOOC “8.MReV Mechanics Review.” They measured learning in two ways: 1) the results of a pre-test and post-test both containing the same 13 conceptual questions, and 2) each week’s homework and test questions.

As with many MOOCs, the students were from a wide variety backgrounds, from physics teachers to those with less than a high school diploma.


Students showed relatively the same amount of learning gain, regardless of which group they belonged to. This doesn’t mean they achieved success at the same level, but that students in the various cohorts had comparable improvements from the pretest to the post-test. “In fact,” the authors write, “the actual score improvement (gain) is higher for students with lower scores on the pretest.”

The MOOC students’ scores were also compared to the scores of MIT freshmen who were required to take the course as a remedial measure before moving on to more advanced courses. The on-campus students benefited from “four hours of instruction in which staff interacted with small groups of students (a flipped classroom) each week, staff office hours, helpful fellow students, available physics tutors, and the MIT library.” Despite all of this, the on-campus students didn’t do any better than the MOOC students: the results show “no evidence of positive, weekly relative improvement of our on-campus students compared with our online students.”


The results of study showed that no matter where they start from, MOOC students do in fact learn. Overall, regardless of how much education they started with, how much preparation they had in math and physics, and their pretest scores, all students showed “roughly equal learning.” Surprisingly, they also showed that similar levels of learning occurred in both the MOOC and the on-campus course, suggesting that the on-campus advantage isn’t as big as it’s cracked up to be.

The idea that no learning occurs in MOOCs is merely the latest assumption about the courses to be proven incorrect. As far as I know, this study is the first of its kind, but it will no doubt not be the last.

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