To Notice and to Learn

Observations on ideas, human mind, and the world around us

Innovation in Education: Online MOOCs

MOOCS – An Exciting New Trend in Learning

MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) are a major recent trend in online education, and something that I’m very excited about.  These are modeled on college-level classes taught by leading professors at elite universities–all for free and available online for anyone to take.  The major providers are:  Udacity (, Coursera (, and edX (, the first being for-profit and the latter two not-for profit companies.

Online education has been around for quite some time, of course, so what makes MOOCs unique and what accounts for their popularity?  I think the following are some key characteristics most MOOCs have:

1. Short video lectures – these are video segments of 4 to 20 minutes each by the professor, which is much less daunting than the idea of watching an hour-long video of a lecture.  Perhaps there is some  influence here from the popular TED Talk format with its non-interactive 18-20 minute time limit that can be consumed in one comfortable sitting.

2. Flexibility – the videos are published weekly but are watched on your own time.  Thus, this removes the issue of scheduling conflicts, but there are still weekly expectations, quizzes, and assignments.  This also means that there is no “live” interaction with the instructor during the lecture–interaction with the content is typically achieved via discussion boards, interacting with other students, but sometimes with responses from the instructor or teaching assistants (indeed, some MOOCs have such a high enrollment, in the tens of thousands, that a dozen or more teaching assistants are utilized)

3. An easy to use interface – each MOOC utilizes a learning platform that is fairly intuitive to use, with links to watch video lectures, take quizzes, peruse discussion groups, or submit assignments.  It is something of a control panel, which helps you to keep track of where you are in the lectures, which quizzes you’ve completed, and which deadlines are coming up, etc.

4. Simple assessments – these courses have simple ways to test students.  First, a best practice is that simple quiz questions are embedded in many of the videos themselves, adding an interactive component to apply or recall what you’ve just learned before continuing on.  Then there may be multiple choice / simple fill-in quizzes that need to be completed.  A novel assessment method that is sometimes used is that of ‘peer assessment’ where your work is graded by three or more randomly selected peers.  A study is purported to have shown that group assessments approximate fairly close to teacher or TA grading.

5. The potential for group work – in addition to discussion boards to communicate with fellow students (though in a large class with thousands of participants, this can feel very anonymous), the course may require forming into groups and completing group assignments.  This requires all the regular coordination and communication of working with a group, of course.

6. Perhaps the most important ingredient is the prestige of the top professors at elite institutions that are teaching many of them.   You can imagine the difference if a MOOC were offered by a teacher at Central State College versus a leading computer science professor at Stanford.  And indeed, the universities that are rushing to adopt a MOOC platform and offer classes tend to be the higher-caliber universities.

Since the latter part of last year, I have completed the following MOOC courses:

  • Gamification, by Professor Kevin Werbach, of the University of Pennsylvania
  • Designing New Learning Environments, by Professor Paul Kim of Stanford’s Education Department
  • E-Learning and Digital Cultures, by several professors at the University of Edinburgh

I’m currently taking the following, and enjoying them quite a bit:

  • Know Thyself, by Professor Mitchell Green of Duke University – a selected tour of the philosophy of self covering Socrates, Decartes, Ryle, Freud, modern neuroscience, and Zen Buddhism
  • Model Thinking, by Professor Scott Page at the University of Michigan – a very lively and insightful cross-disciplinary tour of how different types of models provide insight to various problems, and how those models can be applied to other areas of decision-making, policy, etc.
  • Natural Language Processing, by Professor Michael Collins of Columbia University – a technical introduction to machine-translation of language, an area I find fascinating…I am auditing this because I am not interested in gaining the programming skills, but want to understand in some depth the how language translators such as Google Translate work.
  • Introduction to Python, by Professor Joe Warren, et. al. of Rice University – an engaging and well-thought out introduction to this useful programming language.  To keep things interesting and to show the interactive aspects of Python, nearly all of the programming assignments are games.
  • Technology Entrepreneurship, by Professor Chuck Easley of Stanford University – an applied class where we will form groups and develop an entrepreneurial idea through various stages of planning.

The first four of these MOOCs are through Coursera (, except the last, which is through Venture Lab ( please do check them or other courses out!  I’m also signed up for future MOOCs on the role of sports in society and literature.  I am very excited by the potential of MOOCs and they are fulfilling for me a fantastic way to learn new things in a systematic way–a nice middle ground between ad-hoc learning (via Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, etc.) and taking classes on a campus.

From College to Life-Long Learning

There is a whole debate about the role of MOOCs in higher education and whether they can complement the traditional method of teaching, or whether they will be a source of disrupting the model, and perhaps to some extent, universities as a whole.  I think the extremes of both sides are overblown, but change is already afoot:  some universities are offering limited course credit for completing MOOCs, and in California, the legislature is considering a bill guaranteeing course credit for online classes, including those offered by MOOCs.  There is one thing that most people agree on:  that as MOOCs are held, a number of high quality courses and course content will be made available and potentially leveraged by future teachers.  If a professor at Stanford has a very compelling way of explaining a core concept in computer science, why wouldn’t a professor at the University of Utah assign that lecture in his/her course?  Or vice-versa.  One would hope that the best content would “bubble to the top” and that teachers could be curators of this content to supplement their own efforts.

As exciting as the ramifications of MOOCs are for the university, I am more excited about the possibilities for adult learning.  Consider how our educational system is structured:  we go to school for the first 20-25 years of our life, perhaps 30 if you count graduate school, but then…you are on your own.  Thanks to advances in medicine and diet, etc. our life spans have increased greatly, and, importantly, we are are more cognitively fit and physically able in our later years.  It is now common for people in their early 70’s to work productively.  So how do we learn from the ages 30-70?  As I think Peter Drucker pointed out, one career may not be enough for this long of a time span*.  Until now, it has been up to us to find ways to learn as best we can, by relying on community classes or brief employer-led training.  Especially in an increasing age of knowledge work, we need more structured ways to learn, ways that we can utilize throughout our careers.  I don’t think that MOOCs are the only or best solution to this (for example, I think YouTube could be curated to harness the tremendous learning materials present there as well).  However, MOOCs are a welcome innovation, fill some of the need, and will doubtless evolve.  Beyond MOOCs, I am very excited about the innovation in the educational and ed tech sector, I think we will develop fantastic new ways to teach and to learn.

(*Here’s an example that sounds off-the-wall: what if I told you I wanted to start a law school program for career-changers in their early 50’s?  Sound crazy?  But if people wanted to switch careers and study law related to their prior career (e.g. real estate, divorce, contracts, etc.), they could go to school for 2 years and then practice law for possibly 20 years–a full career.  Now it perhaps doesn’t sound as crazy when you put it that way, right?  I am not saying I really want to start such a program, but it is an example of the  out-of-the-box possibilities there are when we unshackle education from youth.)

Categories: Innovations in Learning

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3 replies

  1. Charlie, great post. I feel like I want to take most of the courses offered on Coursera, edX, and Venture-Lab. I am currently taking Know Thyself (we are classmates!), Machine Learning, Intro to Data Science, and Healthcare Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and Creativity.

    This summer I will work in the education space as an Education Pioneer Fellow, to experience the innovation in this sector first hand.

    I am glad to have found your blog and will visit regularly to stay connected.

  2. Thanks Mamta, glad to hear you are going into this space, what an exciting time to be involved. Best of luck and let’s catch up soon! -Charlie


  1. A Heartfelt Note from a Humanities MOOC Professor | Charlie's Blog - To Notice and to Learn

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