Massive Issues, Massive Benefits

A perspective on pitfalls and progress of MOOCs over the past year.

GUEST COLUMN | by Anne Trumbore

CREDIT NovoEDThe biggest issue with Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs) may be almost everything that has been written about them. MOOCs have been both hailed as the answer to rising tuition costs and limited educational access and pilloried as failures within fewer than 24 months. Both claims are overstated. More importantly, they obscure the real value of these experimental courses: the knowledge gained about the possibilities of technology-assisted instruction, effective pedagogical strategies, and student behavior, among others.

Online educational environments have tremendous potential to enhance student learning if we design them to maximize student involvement and peer-to-peer learning.

Traditional MOOCs can provide access to educational material (primarily filmed lectures, multiple choice quizzes and forums) in an online simulation of the major components of a classroom; however, being able to walk into a classroom doesn’t guarantee you will learn anything once you are there. (Access to content is necessary to educational success, but it’s hardly sufficient.) Thinking that broadcasting lectures created by great professors at elite institutions for free provides a better education for all assumes that financial or geographic barriers to education are the most pressing issues facing students. MOOCS have proven this assumption wrong. What they have shown is that those who succeed in unassisted instruction tend to look a lot like the instructors themselves: people who are good at school.

On the other hand, dismissing MOOCs as failures based on a rudimentary metric of completion is a distraction from their value. Much has been written about how MOOCs are different from traditional modes of instruction, yet the metric of success applied to them is the traditional metric of attendance, which does not take into account the vastly different reasons students sign up for a MOOC, from curiosity about the course topic, to a desire to master a skill, create a meaningful project, and collaborate with fellow participants around the world.

MOOCs are showing us that online educational environments have tremendous potential to enhance student learning if we design them to maximize student involvement and peer-to-peer learning. We know a crucial component of student engagement is feeling connected to, and supported by, a learning community. Uri Treisman’s seminal work Studying Students Studying Calculus shows us that peer support for learning was the greatest predictor for success in calculus, far outstripping SAT scores, socio-economic status, race or gender. What can happen in the massive online classroom when we replicate the social interactions and peer support so necessary to academic success for most students by harnessing the power of the social web, and leveraging student networks to create social connections around content?

Emerging findings from a group of MOOCs designed to maximize social connection, collaboration and project-based learning are beginning to give us a better picture of design strategies which increase student engagement. In these courses, where students can easily collaborate and communicate around meaningful real-world projects, 35 percent – 65 percent of students who complete the first assignment also fulfill reasonably rigorous grading criteria set by the instructors. Not only does this metric of completion make more sense for comparison, but it also shows us that the technological and pedagogical designs employed by these courses are effective, and bear further experimentation and implementation.

Forward-thinking institutions are already beginning to use these technologies and designs to create true global classrooms, where teams of students from around the world can work together to create meaningful work. Right now, students in a class in Maryland are sharing an online classroom with students in Beijing where they share and evaluate each other’s work to bring new perspectives and understanding to both course content and each other. Concurrently, participants from all around the world are gathering to identify global health challenges and working on multi-national teams to address them more effectively in a MOOC on mobile health. We are beginning to see incredible innovation and experimentation that will help us develop better instructional practices in the on-campus and online classrooms.

I still believe MOOCs have the power to be extraordinary. For the first time ever, we have the capability to amplify social learning by connecting students across geographical boundaries and engaging them with thoughtful and sensitive use of technology and design. What is massive about open online courses is the expansion of human potential when you add social collaboration to an easily accessible online learning experience. There is no last word yet about MOOCs, and they are still very much a work in progress. But when we dismiss the hype, and focus on the student experience, MOOCs can show us the way to be better educators and to give students everywhere better chances to succeed.

Anne Trumbore directs design and implementation for online classes offered on NovoEd. She has taught in, and designed curricula for, online environments at Stanford since 2004 where she developed innovative interactive teaching techniques. She has worked closely with faculty at major research institutions to design over twenty MOOCs with an emphasis on new forms of online instruction. She is thrilled to be able to help extend pedagogical innovation in the online space to empower students to think in more sustained and sophisticated ways through collaboration in engaged learning communities.

  • Martin Rayala


    Combining MOOCs with the concept of the Flipped Classroom we can get a glimpse of the future of education in which the “lectures” or transmission of knowledge and ideas takes place electronically through videos of master teachers supported with advanced visualization techniques outside of the classroom and the school becomes the site for social collaboration on meaningful projects that demonstrate understanding and application of the content knowledge. Peer-to-peer social interaction will take place both online with global peer interaction through social networks as well as face-to-face with peers and with a teacher/coach/mentor in a physical setting like a classroom or through regional meet-ups. The school will provide shared space, equipment and resources for peer teams to engage in collaborative project-based learning. We are developing this global network learning model combining MOOCs and on-site collaborative project-based learning at Design-Lab Schools – as described in this 2-minute video –

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