Free Online Classes: Unlocking the Ivory Tower


If you haven’t heard of MOOCs yet, you will. In fact, if you haven’t already taken a MOOC, seriously, what’s wrong with you? MOOCs are taking the educational world by storm: The New York Times has already proclaimed 2012 the “Year of the MOOC”; Columbia University will offer its first MOOCs this spring, while the University of Virginia fired its president (temporarily, it turned out) for foot-dragging on MOOCs. Blogs and educational journals are awash with debates over whether MOOCs are the future, are overhyped, will save higher education or destroy it.

For the uninitiated, MOOCs are Massive Open Online Courses, and they are simple enough to envision, if a bit unsettling for those whose notion of college coursework invariably involves desks, whiteboards, and the physical presence of other living human beings. Drawing from the online courses that have become increasingly popular in recent years, MOOCs blast down the two main barriers to access to higher education—having to pay tuition and having to be admitted to college—by opening themselves up to all comers, for free. This leads to some eye-popping class sizes—100,000-student classes aren’t unusual—and equally eye-popping claims about how the new format will revolutionize the world of higher education.

Courses in which students and professors never meet face to face aren’t new, of course. Columbia chief digital officer Sree Sreenivasan notes that the university’s engineering school began offering learn-by-VHS-tape courses way back in 1986. And the past several years have already seen many forays into online coursework, including Khan Academy and Apple’s iTunes U, which provide college-level educational videos for download.

The difference with MOOCs, says Andrew Ng, the soft-spoken Stanford computer-science professor who, along with his colleague Daphne Koller, launched the for-profit MOOC company Coursera in April, is “we’re not just offering video; we’re offering complete courses. We went through the student course experience and pervasively tried to figure out which are the components that could be provided at scale to 100,000 students.”

The heart of the idea behind MOOCs is what’s being called the “flipped classroom,” already a hot trend in brick-and-mortar courses: Instead of having professors waste their time on canned lectures that students nap through, get them to put those talks online, for students to watch at their own leisure, opening up class time for actual discussion. “We know that students learn best not by passively listening but by practicing with the material,” says Ng. “And I think the website does a better job providing that than does a large lecture class.”

Ng’s deeper goal, though, is more lofty: not just to bring college coursework into the Internet age, but also to bring it to the masses. “What I’d love to do is to give everyone in the world free access to the best professors from the best universities,” says Ng. “I think the world would be a more interesting place if we could give a poor kid in Africa nearly the equality of opportunity as a kid born in the wealthy suburbs of D.C.”

Throwing open the gates of academia and allowing knowledge to spill out certainly sounds great. But the reports from the ground are more complex: While super-massive classes have promise, say MOOC veterans, putting together the components of a successful classroom out of YouTube videos and a Web discussion board is far easier said than done.

The popularity of MOOCs, advocates say, speaks for itself. Coursera in particular has quickly piled up head count, registering more than 2 million students in its first nine months. (“We reached our first million users faster than Facebook,” boasts Ng.) Those are impressive numbers, even if only a small fraction of students who sign up complete the courses—likely an unavoidable consequence of a system in which enrolling is as simple, and commitment-free, as clicking a single Web button.

And universities have proved equally enthusiastic, with MOOC offerings rising exponentially every semester: More than 21 major universities have signed up with Coursera, while others have affiliated with Udacity (also launched at Stanford) and edX (a joint start-up by Harvard and MIT). “They’re all jostling for position, I think, not entirely sure where they’re going to go,” says Martin Haugh, who will teach one of the inaugural Columbia MOOCs, in financial engineering and risk management, via Coursera starting next month.

Haugh and his co-instructor, Garud Iyengar, have taught online courses before, but never one of this size. (As of early December, more than 30,000 students had already signed up, and the final count could be double that.) Haugh says they’re still feeling their way about how to translate the coursework into a massive format, including Coursera’s recommended system of taped mini-lectures of eight to 15 minutes, interspersed with quizzes.

Part of MOOCs’ popularity with students, no doubt, is the first “O.” By design, they’re available for free to anyone with a Web browser. “I’m pretty broke right now, so I can’t afford college classes,” explains Christine Segarra of Yonkers, who was tipped off to Coursera by a friend after she’d dropped out of college for financial reasons. She signed up for a Michigan course on science fiction and fantasy and is now taking a Duke class in reasoning and argument. “I haven’t been to school in six, seven years, so it’s good to get my feet wet,” she says.

Even those who have dropped out of MOOCs before finishing—Coursera won’t release completion rates, but many individual courses have reported figures below 10 percent—have good things to say about the material available for free home learning. Grant Bremer, a Brooklyn resident who works in the financial industry, is perhaps a typical MOOC student in that he has started several classes, but finished none, something he blames on the demands of a full-time job and family. “I enjoyed it for those three weeks,” he says. “I really love the content there—it’s fantastic that I can interface with a professor from Stanford or Princeton. But it feels so distant and impersonal. It’s just a series of YouTube lectures and multiple-choice questions.”

Laura Gibbs, a literature professor at the University of Oklahoma, signed up for the same fantasy course as Segarra, for a different reason: She has taught online courses for years, though limited to about 30 students per class. “I love teaching online, and I think it has so much potential. Is ‘massive’ part of that potential or not? I’m really not sure.”

Gibbs ended up blogging about her experience at, relating tales of the growing pains that strike when professors and students alike are thrown headlong into the mass Internet. Much of her ire was reserved for the Coursera discussion boards—the piece that is supposed to make MOOCs more than just another way to sit around in your pajamas and watch educational videos, yet which she says turned into an unmoderated free-for-all that included everything from basic questions going unanswered for weeks to Americans criticizing their U.K. classmates for using British spellings. Bremer is equally dismissive: “My first reaction to the discussion board was this was crap—a whole bunch of people saying, ‘I’m from the West Coast!’ ‘I’m from Brazil!’ There was a lot of noise to get through.”

It’s a complaint that points to a deeper problem with the open aspect of MOOCs: If a large part of the value of a college education is the discussions you have with other students about the material, in a MOOC no one knows whether the student next to them, is, as it were, a dog. “At the university, you take a class, you have prerequisites,” says Bremer. “There’s an assumed level of competency. Yet there’s none of that here.”

While Gibbs says it can be fantastic to get people from around the world collaborating, she agrees that it can present a huge challenge as well: “People did show up at this class with all kinds of purposes in mind—some of which were like the purposes of a University of Michigan upper-division English major, and some of which were very different, like all the international students who just wanted to practice their English. Now, practicing English is a great thing to do, but it’s not something that this professor, I don’t think, had in mind when he designed the course or chose the books.”

Ng says that making the discussion boards “more social” is at the top of his to-do list and notes that students are increasingly using Meetup to arrange face-to-face study groups, especially in major cities like New York. But other MOOC problems seem more inherent to the format. Grading is one of these. Because even modern adjuncts would balk at grading 30,000 papers in one sitting, Coursera has instead turned to a two-tier model: automated evaluation and peer grading.

Each has its drawbacks, say MOOC veterans. Automated scripts are, well, automated, and are best limited to subjects like math or engineering where multiple-choice exams are the norm. (It’s generally agreed that MOOCs have a tougher time with humanities coursework; Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun has stated bluntly, “We are not doing humanities.”) Yet even in strictly quantitative subjects like math, Bremer argues, multiple-choice grading for college-level courses leaves a lot to be desired, since there’s no way to give partial credit, say, for a correctly reasoned answer undermined by a single flipped minus sign somewhere in the calculation.

To allow for more complicated assignments, such as essays, some Coursera courses have turned to peer grading, in which students mark up one another’s papers and rate them on a scale of 0 to 3 for both form and content—arrived at, according to Ng, after determining that more detailed scales were too daunting for amateur graders.

Yet farming out the grading process to the masses comes with some knotty problems. In her blog, Gibbs detailed reader comments that ranged from useless (“Ug”) to hostile (“My guess is you lived in one of the Carolinas where you neither spoke nor wrote a high quality of English”)—something exacerbated, she says, by automated software that gives students credit for commenting on one another’s work but which has no way of judging the quality of the comments.

Things can get even dicier, say MOOC students, when it comes to plagiarism, which many have worried will be the format’s Achilles heel. Peer graders in Gibbs’s class were directed by other students to use anti-plagiarism sites such as PlagTracker, which inaccurately flagged quotations from source material as plagiarized—leading to a backlash in which students pressed one another to promise not to check for plagiarism at all. And besides, adds Bremer, the penalties for violating an online honor code are minimal: “Are you going to lose your tuition? Are you going to go before the honor committee? No, you just open up another account and there you go.”

Even if MOOCs can clear these hurdles, two more huge ones loom before free online classes can put any significant dent in the way that academia is constructed. First off, no MOOCs thus far offer college credit: Coursera in particular outright bans credit for its courses, instead offering “certificates” that, in theory, students can wave at prospective employers in lieu of an actual diploma to show their competence in a subject. One reason for this is no doubt to ward off fears by university partners that MOOCs will provide a way for students to evade paying tuition; another has to do with the troubling prospect of pass-fail online credits being graded either by a computer or by 15-year-old kids in São Paulo.

An even bigger question, meanwhile, is how to pay for all the staff time involved in developing and implementing Web-optimized courses, not to mention the cash that the MOOC companies require to run their end of the bargain. (Coursera and Udacity are both for-profit enterprises; the smaller edX is nonprofit.) Ng is loath to consider charging even a nominal fee for classes—”poor kids in India, poor kids in China, not only do they not have five dollars, they don’t even have a credit card,” he says—but ask how he plans to make all this pay for itself, and things get more nebulous: Students could be charged a nominal fee if they want a certificate, he suggests. (Udacity recently began experimenting with an $89 proctored exam for students who desire a meatier credential.) Last month, Coursera also announced Coursera Career Services, in which job recruiters will pay a fee to get the names of top computer-science-course certificate-holders; no word on any headhunter interest in fantasy writers.

And while universities have been quick to throw their hats into the MOOC ring, their long-term goals seem to be less about breaking down ivy walls than learning how to supplement what their paid students are already learning. Columbia’s main goal in joining Coursera, says Sreenivasan, is to “get a sense of what we can learn from this new big space that can also apply to our students. We want to try various experiments, and this is just one set of those.” His counterpart at Michigan, Martha Pollack, says that if MOOCs are going to have a future, they’re going to need to spin off some benefits for the universities providing the content: “Either it’s going to have to make a tremendous difference for our students on campus, or we’re going to have to have some kind of financial model that allows us to break even.”

From what MOOC students say, colleges have little to worry about in terms of competition: Every student interviewed by the Voice agreed that while online courses are great, they’re no substitute for real college coursework. And even Ng agrees that virtual study groups can’t fully replace the college atmosphere: “If you’re admitted to the University of Pennsylvania, and you’re debating staying at home and taking online courses, I would say go to the university for sure. A university experience is much more than just content.”

Gibbs, meanwhile, thinks that trying to turn MOOCs into an extension of the traditional classroom is exactly the wrong way to harness the power of online learning, especially because there are already plenty of online textbooks and YouTube educational videos for Web learners to choose from. “I think the real power of MOOCs is not as content delivery; I think the power of MOOCs is in getting people to create and collaborate together,” says Gibbs, citing DS106, a digital storytelling class that University of Mary Washington professors Jim Groom and Alan Levine have offered since the spring of 2010, where students team up to create everything from radio plays to movie posters. “Get people to make a wiki,” she suggests. “Get them to annotate The Iliad in Slovenian and put it online.

“What these MOOCs have shown us is that people want to use the Internet for education—they don’t just want to share cat pictures,” continues Gibbs. “The missing ingredient right now in terms of online education is not content. The missing ingredient is not superstar professors from elite universities. The missing ingredient is educational communities that really work.”

For now, though, the pioneers of this brave new world remain cautiously hopeful. “I think it could really revolutionize education,” says Haugh, the Columbia MOOC prof. “But what do I know?”