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Magazines > Information Today > September 2013

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Information Today
Vol. 30 No. 8 — September 2013
MOOCs: Classes for the Masses
by Brandi Scardilli

In 2008, Stephen Downes and George Siemens developed an online course called Connectivism and Connective Knowledge. Little did they know the trend that they set in motion. The two professors from Canada’s University of Manitoba introduced the next biggest thing in education: the first-ever massive open online course (MOOC).

Downes detailed his work with Siemens in a 2011 Huffington Post article, “ ‘Connectivism’ and Connective Knowledge.” The two professors built their MOOC using connectivism, which is “the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.”

This first course was open to tuition-paying students at the university, but Downes and Siemens also opened the door to nonpaying students. In fact, more than 2,200 students worldwide signed up for the 12-week course. As moderators, Downes and Siemens conducted online seminars twice a week during the course. They sent out daily enewsletters with articles, videos, discussion posts, collected tweets, blog posts from students, and assigned readings from freely available sources. Their approach was unique: They claimed they were the ones who actually wanted to learn from the readings, and the students were welcome to join in and participate at any level.

By definition, MOOCs are free courses designed for large numbers of students who attend lectures and interact online; any assigned readings for the course are also freely available. It was Dave Cormier who first reportedly coined the term “MOOC,” according to a 2008 post on his blog, after word spread about Downes and Siemens’ course: “To the best of my knowledge, the term ‘MOOC’ comes out of a skype chat conversation I had with George Siemens about what exactly he would call this thing he and Stephen Downes were doing so I could call it something. …”

Cormier remembers that the upshot of this new online course “was that it really was going to be an open course, and the instructors were going to allow the students to form whatever groups they might be interested in and they would provide the communication stream but not the organizational scaffolding.” But he had some doubts: He wasn’t sure whether the format would be sustainable in the long term or that other professors would be able to replicate such courses if they weren’t already web-savvy.

MOOCs Catch On

But it didn’t take long before other educators wanted to try the format. In fall 2011, Stanford professors Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun created Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, a course that attracted 160,000 students from 190 countries.

Since that initial offering in 2008, MOOCs have been steadily gaining in popularity. “I think they’ve caught on just because people are curious,” says Kyle Denlinger, elearning librarian at Wake Forest University’s Z. Smith Reynolds Library in North Carolina. “They want to learn more. I don’t think that the majority of people are interested in earning credit … they’re interested in learning new things,” he says. “And the web is a fantastic platform for making that happen.”

But popularity doesn’t necessarily translate into actual numbers. It isn’t easy to find reliable statistics about MOOCs, according to a Feb. 5, 2013, article by Jimmy Daly, online content manager for EdTech magazine. To help gather such statistics, Ithaka S+R is now compiling facts and figures about student response to the MOOC movement in a report expected to be finished in early 2014.

Valerie Hill, Ph.D., and librarian at Texas Woman’s University School of Library and Information Studies, has taken four MOOCs. She says one of the biggest draws for the courses is that she gets to decide what she wants to learn and how much. “With the rise in opportunities for user-generated content (Web 2.0) online, individuals are embracing the ‘information should be free’ attitude. Constructivist learning and collaboration are becoming recognized as learning opportunities across the globe,” she says.

At a session at this year’s American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference, Hill described three key advantages of MOOCs: price (free or low cost), variety (broad topic range), and accessibility (global interest without traveling). But there are also a few disadvantages: assessment (difficulty in tracking student progress), accreditation (credits not always given for courses), and isolation (students don’t get personal attention). Plus, critics are weighing in on the future of academic learning and whether MOOCs will replace the traditional classroom as Thrun once predicted at the start of the MOOC movement.

The Year of the MOOC

Four years after the launch of the first MOOC, Laura Pappano, a writer for The New York Times, referred to 2012 as “The Year of the MOOC.” She saw the role of MOOCs expanding to bring “the best education in the world to the most remote corners of the planet, help people in their careers, and expand intellectual and personal networks.”

In 2012, Udacity, Coursera, and edX emerged as three MOOC providers to watch. Udacity announced that it had 150,000 students enrolled in its first unofficial course in late 2011. Coursera launched its MOOC offerings in January 2012, and 1.7 million students have taken courses as of fall 2012. edX introduced its first official course in fall 2012 and has since signed up 370,000 students. Each of them has a slightly different history.

Udacity was designed to democratize education after the success of the artificial intelligence MOOC, a creation of Stanford professors Sebastian Thrun, David Stavens, and Mike Sokolsky. After completing one of its 25 courses on business, computer science, mathematics, physics, and psychology, students are awarded certificates. High school students can get their first taste of college-level classes with a mix of Udacity’s for-credit and not-for-credit courses; college students can take courses their own institution doesn’t have, and professionals can sign up to learn new skills. Udacity swaps traditional lectures for new learning tools: project-based assignments, brief videos, virtual field trips, and forums for peer discussion. Udacity professors only need an internet connection with 384Kbps upload speed and a webcam with a microphone to set up a course. Students can use Firefox and either the Windows XP or OS X 10.6 operating system to connect in most cases.

Coursera, another Stanford University product, was a collaborative effort between computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller to help people “learn without limits,” according to the company website. Courses feature video lectures by expert professors, interactive quizzes, and peer-graded assignments. In July 2013, it offered 398 courses from 83 educational institution partners in 16 countries. Its more than 20 course topics range from the humanities and biology to the social sciences and computer science. No special software or computer equipment is needed to offer or take a MOOC; a good internet connection and a computer with at least 1GB of RAM are sufficient. Coursera cautions that it does not guarantee full functionality on a mobile device, though the company is working on that capability. Coursera keeps a running tally of student signups on its homepage; in July 2013, more than 4 million students were enrolled.

The third contender in this space is edX, which started out as a joint effort between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University. With a network of 28 university partners called the xConsortium, edX offers 56 courses as of July 2013 covering topics such as science, art, and technology; students who complete a course receive a certificate of mastery. The edX platform is open source to encourage experimentation with the format; however, only members of the xConsortium may use edX software to host their own content, though this may change. edX courses feature social networking, videos, and experimentation labs, one of which features a 3D virtual molecule builder.

The Cost Factors

For creators, MOOCs can be costly. During a session about MOOCs at the ALA Annual Conference in July, Heather Rayl, emerging technology librarian at Indiana State University, says professors need to spend time working on MOOC content: creating lectures and assignments, finding free content, and making videos for the course. She estimates that a single MOOC takes between 100 and 300 hours of preparation and between 8 and 10 hours of maintenance per week. Video production costs alone can range from $15,000 to $50,000, depending on how much the MOOC creator is willing to spend.

After a set budget has been determined, MOOC providers can ensure that the online course is running smoothly; they can advertise the course and help professors with the content. Rayl noted that the three main MOOC providers approach funding differently: Udacity and Coursera are venture capital companies, so once their initial investment runs out, they need to turn a profit; edX is a nonprofit company funded by a $60 million infusion from MIT and Harvard, but the company will also eventually need to be self-sustaining.

“I think right now we are in a happy production bubble where everyone is producing in spite of the costs, and they are being written off as a future investment,” according to Rayl, pointing to the importance of ROI. She is betting on edX taking the lead, since it’s a nonprofit. “[Its] monetary goal will not be to make a profit for its owners or shareholders, rather it will be to sustain itself,” she said. “I also think that [its] non-profit stance is a better fit for the ideology surrounding MOOCs—education for the people.”

Librarians Getting On Board

Librarians can’t help but focus on copyright issues, especially teaching faculty about open access content or educational resources, says Denlinger. “[I]f we have media production facilities in our libraries, or expertise, we can help them create their lecture videos,” he says.

Likewise, Hill sees librarians taking more of an active role, channeling their shifting priorities with MOOCs to promote information literacy. “My role as a librarian is rapidly moving from one of maintaining to that of information literacy specialist,” she says. “In virtual communities, such as MOOCs, librarians need to promote information literacy through embedding core library values,” she says. But for now, librarians can help students be personally responsible for their learning, an attitude that Denlinger shares: “In a way, that’s why libraries have existed forever, to help people learn new things, to empower lifelong learners.”

Academic and public libraries will undoubtedly play different roles in the MOOC movement, says Rayl. Academic librarians can help instructors with MOOC materials, offer embedded services, and serve as a resource when students have research questions; public librarians may help patrons “research a topic using resources the library already provides, or trying to find items via interlibrary loan for the customer,” according to Rayl. Public libraries can also be a place where MOOC participants meet as a group informally or as part of the course. For others, the library may be the place where those who have limited or no internet access can connect online, she says.

Partnerships can also develop around MOOCs. “In a lot of ways, I think libraries are uniquely suited to offering these types of lifelong learning opportunities to any community,” says Denlinger. “There could be a network of public libraries offering an entire course for the nation.” He introduced the first MOOC course at his library and plans to create more (see the sidebar on this page).

The Future of MOOCs

Not everyone is as optimistic about the potential of MOOCs as was Sebastian Thrun, but they may have a place in the hallowed halls of higher education.

Hill is cautious about anyone trying to cash in on MOOCs too quickly, pointing to the value in maintaining high standards to ensure accuracy, quality, and authenticity in an era of user-generated digital chaos. “Publishers, too, [that] cannot move quickly into an open source philosophy or intellectual property will no longer be respected,” she says. “A balance of traditional and innovation is essential.”

Blended learning may well be the future of the MOOC movement, according to Rayl. Courses could feature online elements such as quizzes and discussions of an assigned text, and then students can meet in a physical classroom to discuss topics in more depth. Or an online lecture could set the pace for the discussion portion as the breakout class, she says.

But Denlinger sees outright conflicts. Since libraries are nonprofit institutions, they may not reap the potential profitability of MOOCs, he says. “I think creating a course with the intention of earning revenue would be disingenuous. It would defeat our mission. I don’t think I see a library offering any kind of online course for profit.”

Accreditation can still present potential problems for MOOCs. “In order for these courses to be presented as an ‘official’ accomplishment on a resume, CV, application, or anywhere else, there has to be something a little more official,” says Rayl. However, she doesn’t see that transformation happening anytime soon.

Rayl predicts that MOOCs will definitely have a place in education: “I think the most likely avenue that MOOCs will take is to become a backbone of blended learning in underfunded universities, four year colleges, and community colleges.”

As for Hill, a little tradition doesn’t hurt: Universities still need traditional methods of earning accreditation through standard curriculum and programs. “As technology tools emerge, nobody can predict which trends will grow and which will fade,” she says.

Report From the Front Row

Even before I started the course, I was sure I’d like 6.00SC: Introduction to Computer Science and Programming, a beginner’s computer science course that focuses on solving problems with computation by way of Python computer programming.

But when I found myself cheering after I finally succeeded in getting the right results on a difficult programming assignment, I knew that I was actually enjoying it. And apparently I wasn’t alone: The spring 2011 class taught by professor John Guttag is the first option that pops up under Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) OpenCourseWare (OCW) Most Visited Courses tab, with the first lecture streaming more than 100,000 times on YouTube.

The reality of 6.00SC’s structure, even for those first real-life students in 2011, requires you to do a fair amount of self-teaching. The introduction to computer science is really just that: The professor’s goal is for students to learn to think like a computer scientist in solving problems, with Python being the convenient medium. The students who don’t know Python as a language get to learn the finer points on their own (and rather quickly).

I looked around and found a host of good references, wiki dictionaries, and tutorials. And I practiced using Python coding tutorials from Codeacademy, which is becoming a remarkable supplement for the course. I know a few longtime programmers and technology educators are rolling their eyes at the mere mention of the name. While Codeacademy is certainly weak in a lot of ways (poor robot checkers and a complete lack of stimulation toward independent projects and unique code), the repetition of basic Python structures is a perfect companion to the problem sets that 6.00SC provides, which add layer upon layer to create more complex programs with little room for error.

If a particular program proves too much to handle on your own, OCW points you to OpenStudy, where you can find people in a similar situation and find plenty of support from more experienced programmers. There’s little of the one-upsmanship that reportedly plague other MOOC forums, a blessing that may ebb and flow with the course’s popularity. From my experience, questions are usually answered within the hour. Users who’ve already completed the course and a handful of experienced Python programmers fill in as live teaching assistants, offering advice, targeted resources, and code.

Although the courses in the OCW Scholar series aren’t MOOCs in their own right, they’re sometimes used piecemeal for alternative online educational offerings, such as those on Mechanical MOOC ( Users can sign up by the thousands for an introduction to Python, stick to a schedule of readings and videos drawn from 6.00SC and its sister class (6.189: A Gentle Introduction to Programming Using Python), complete Codeacademy units, and fit into groups on OpenStudy.

OK, I admit that I completed between 85% and 90% of the same assignments, programs, practice, and study group participation as those who were set up on the Mechanical MOOC, which delved a little further into programming. But I explored 6.00SC’s more computer science-focused content to the end. If we count the Mechanical MOOC as a real MOOC, I feel comfortable calling my own sojourn into online education a MOOC: We shared the same community of learners, the same professors, and the same practices. Ultimately, my self-study would most likely not have met the MOOC criteria prescribed by Stephen Downes in his recent article, “The Quality of Massive Open Online Courses,” but collectives such as the Mechanical MOOC go a lot further toward satisfying the criteria in full. So if you’re a serial MOOC dropout, there are open source alternatives to consider, especially if you’re the sort of person who is better motivated by picking up a compass and a map, rather than a GPS and a pair of coordinates.

- Donovan Griffin

MIT OCW, which has been around for more than a decade, began as a way for MIT faculty to share resources with other instructors. In 2011, OCW launched a series of classes with more fleshed-out resources (including video lectures, problem sets, and quizzes) called OCW Scholar, aimed at independent learners rather than educators. And although MIT has partnered with Harvard University at edX to provide what could be called a conventional massive open online course (MOOC) that sports registration dates and certificates, the OCW Scholar page remains mostly updated and ready to use. So, having missed the February sign-up date for 6.00’s equivalent on edX, I settled in for a self-driven course with the resources of MIT’S OCW.

It’s true that the OCW Scholar series isn’t a MOOC in the strictest sense. Similar courses designed for the web (e.g., Udacity’s popular CS101 course and edX’s own version of the same class) are shorter and feature quick videos and robot-graded homework. By contrast, I was checking my own work with the answer keys that OCW provided, watching 50-minute lectures and recitations (the latter taught by teaching assistants to reinforce key concepts), and working through every class that the students of MIT’s spring 2011 6.00SC course did. If you imagine the current online learning spectrum as two opposing sides, with emulation of university experience on one and professional development on the other, the course I ended up choosing sits as far over on the academic simulation side as it can get, with Udacity on the opposite side (“The lecture is dead,” according to its website, and the future is in “[b]ite-sized videos”).

In this format, everything is available all at once: every lesson, homework set, quiz answer, and recitation. And it can get overwhelming. As with MIT’s real class, the suggested rate of completion for the course would be a standard semester in real time. The expectation is that a viewer would partake of two lectures and one recitation per week with problem sets assigned every other lecture and three quizzes interspersed to track progress. But it didn’t take long for impatience to get the better of me. I completed the first week of lessons and problems easily, so I decided to get a head start on the second week. After all, I wanted more, and the material was right there. And besides, what could go wrong?

Well, it wasn’t long before I found myself trying to do a lesson a day and growing more frustrated that I couldn’t solve the problem sets quickly. After a tough self-grading on the first quiz, it dawned on me: I was competing against the very freedom that the unstructured course was supposed to offer; I had let it become a race against my own comprehension, which clearly isn’t the best way to learn. I soon learned to take my time on the problem sets and let the lecture sink in for a day before going on to the next, and my overall performance on the quizzes (not to mention retention) improved dramatically.

On the other hand, self-grading and the ability to fail without consequence became an unlikely boon. Without worrying about a diminished GPA or lost scholarship money, I started experimenting with different approaches to the material and with my own learning style. Some MOOCs may charge for college credit or proctored exams that produce a certificate at the end of the course, but, by contrast, the laissez-faire design of the Scholar series only involves the pressure that emanates from your own eagerness to learn.

A Single Library Tackles a MOOC

Librarians can create successful MOOCs, as Kyle Denlinger demonstrated when he created ZSRx: The Cure for the Common Web. The elearning librarian at Wake Forest University’s Z. Smith Reynolds Library rolled out his special online course on March 18, 2013.

Denlinger and his team decided to offer a course for the alumni and parents of Wake Forest University so they could interact with library staff and fellow patrons while learning more about the web. “Think of this less as a traditional class with deadlines and boundaries and more as a starting point for learning and connecting to a larger community of learners,” according to its site. And they did. The course attracted more than 700 people, most of whom responded favorably and requested more such classes. For Denlinger, the course wasn’t technically a MOOC since it wasn’t “massive,” but it was open to Wake Forest community members.

Denlinger spent about 200 hours creating the course using free tools, including Google Sites and its templates. “I built the course site on a Google Site just because it was easy to do, quick to get off the ground, and it did most of the things I wanted it to do,” he says. He even recorded videos for the course using a webcam in his office. Students could complete the course, which was divided into four modules, at their own pace.

Each week, Denlinger spent between 3 and 4 hours moderating the course with two colleagues. To facilitate discussion, he used Google Groups (which showed threaded discussions; 330 people signed up) and Google+ (which served as the course blog; 50 to 100 students participated weekly).

These two platforms were relatively intuitive for beginners. However, Denlinger spent time early in the course familiarizing students with the technology. One student even tracked down his office phone number to ask for help. When he realized Google Groups was difficult for some students, he made a tutorial video for the course site. When one student wanted to compare his search results with those of other students, Denlinger showed them how to grab screen shots of their search results so they could do their own comparisons.

“It was really interesting to see what people were using to access the course,” says Denlinger. “Most people were just doing it from home on a desktop computer or their laptop,” but one couple was on vacation in Australia and accessed the course on their iPad.

Denlinger intentionally kept the course small; he only wanted students from the Wake Forest community to keep interaction on a personal level. “[W]e generalized the content and learning outcomes, focusing on web literacies that are relevant to everyone,” he wrote in a blog post earlier in 2013. “We curated third-party content from around the web, finding readings, videos, and websites that anyone could access and easily fit into their busy schedules.” Nevertheless, the participating students hailed from 23 states and 10 countries. One alumnus from the class of 1954 signed up, as well as parents of former and current students. One of the best outcomes was the connection among the participants: “People started connecting to old friends, swapping stories of their time at Wake, reminiscing over favorite professors,” he wrote.

Though he set out to create a MOOC, Denlinger sees ZSRx as something much bigger: “[T]his was Wake Forest gathering around a collection of online content and using it as a tool to learn new things as a community.”


Brandi Scardilli is managing editor at Information Today, Inc., where she works on NewsBreaks and Information Today. Send your comments about this article to
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