The MOOC revolution

As online courses increase in enrollment and opportunity, Johns Hopkins’ Brian Caffo came to Brown on Monday, 4/7, to give a talk on his role in producing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) in Data Science via Coursera.

Brian is an a professor in the Department of Biostatistics in the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and you can read more about his research here.

After meeting him in person beforehand, I could tell that Brian was going to raise several interesting points contrasting online learning, MOOC’s, and a traditional classroom setting. As a result, I decided to live-tweet Brian’s talk (I hope he didn’t mind!), and here are some of the most interesting points that he raised:

I’ve never taught in a flipped classroom setting, although at some point, I hope to do so. In a flipped setting, students watch lectures on the internet, with class time reserved for problem solving, group work, and the like. Brian’s work in videotaping his lectures for his own classes provided a natural segue into online learning for students not formally enrolled at Hopkins.

The four goals of a MOOC aren’t surprising. Thus far, their implementation has been amazingly popular. More than 200,000 people have signed up for the statistics offerings at Johns Hopkins. While I didn’t copy the exact numbers, about 10% of those who sign up for a given course actually follow through to the finish. I also thought it was unique that the mode participation level was 0: more students sign up for the course and do nothing (i.e., don’t watch any videos, or complete any assignments) than do anything else.

Because MOOC’s are initially free, one issue which lingers is how this type of learning can sustain itself.

At things stand now, Brian admitted that he and his cohort at Hopkins are not earning much, if any, financial compensation for the substantial amount of time they have spent building MOOC’s. Of course, someone is making money, although the total amount and the share is a little fuzzy. As of now, Coursera offers a Signature Track to their courses, the money of which is split (at an unknown rate) between the university and Coursera.

So if faculty members aren’t getting paid, does building MOOC’s help their status in academia?

This part is a little bit scary. Brian admitted that while the future was unknown, he was also comfortable that there remain no financial guarantees.

Given the crazy enrollment that Hopkins has seen with Coursera, the MOOC revolution appears to be just beginning. Will schools continue to participate? How long will the revolution last? And what are students really learning in a MOOC setting?

All of these are interesting, but yet unanswered, questions.


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