The Symbiosis of College and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

kenji mori80ABy Kenji Mori
Student at Kapi’olani Community College
University of Hawai’i

Information Technology has great potential for education. As one college student says, “It allows for a plethora of knowledge to be shared, as well as content that is created by other users to reach a wider audience than would ordinary [SIC] be possible” (Taylor). In recent years, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have taken advantage of this in order to offer free courses over the Internet. Unlike most online college classes, these courses allow tens or even hundreds of thousands of students around the globe to widen their knowledge. MOOCs have much to offer students. The integration of MOOCs in college courses will lead to a better learning experience.

Recently, when I was introduced to the concept of MOOCs, I created an account on Udacity and edX – two of the leading providers of MOOC content. My eyes lit up as I found courses not only on introductory level subjects but also on more advanced topics such as artificial intelligence and cryptography. These courses are offered by top universities such as Harvard and MIT and conducted by world-renowned professors.

MOOCs generally follow the format of a series of video lectures interspersed with quizzes. They do not derive most of their appeal from the use of innovation. After all, they are not far different from the lectures we see in today’s classrooms. Rather, they are revolutionary in that they make education available in a way thus unprecedented. Free, quality education is being made available to all. According to one national poll, about half of the families in the United States cannot afford college (Allebrand). For them, MOOCs are a godsend. For graduates, MOOCs give the opportunity to become life-long learners. Even for college students, there is much to gain. 

MOOCs cover a lot of subjects that are not fully offered in colleges. Money is a natural limitation, and colleges simply cannot afford to cover all the content that MOOCs do. Thanks to MOOCs, much of what we want to learn is just a mouse click away. I am currently an IT student at a small community college. My college offers several courses on programming, yet none on artificial intelligence, parallel programming and other interesting courses offered by MOOCs. While attending college, I can simultaneously take MOOCs to gain a more in-depth knowledge of the subjects I learn in class.

Technically, I can take MOOCs that cover the same topics that my college courses do. At this point, one may wonder why I should even bother going to college to begin with. I contend that while MOOCs have their advantages, so do colleges.

It is hard for MOOCs alone to give hands-on experience. EdX incorporates software that simulates amplifiers and electronic circuits, but building a circuit with a mouse is not the same as doing it with my own hands. Physical college classes provide students with the equipment needed for hands-on activities and are better able to guide students in carrying them out. For example, in one of our classes, we built computers, experimented with the classroom’s network configuration, and worked with a variety of computer hardware. We also troubleshot computers with errors that the instructor purposely introduced. Such practical experience could not have been obtained through a MOOC alone.

If physical college courses are superior in helping students gain physical experience and MOOCs are superior in providing a vast resource of knowledge, then it stands to reason that a combination of the two will result in something even better. Here is an example of what I mean. The college I attend, Kapiolani Community College, is locally known for its culinary program. Yet, this college does not have the resources to delve deeply into food science. MOOCs do, and in fact, Harvard is currently offering a MOOC that deals specifically with this subject. MOOCs can offer students the theoretical knowledge needed to improve cooking. By assigning MOOC content as homework, Kapiolani’s culinary courses could then replace in-class lectures with a greater emphasis on practical activities. Such a combination would allow colleges and MOOCs to specialize in what they do best and to give students the best of both worlds. Students will be able to develop both practical skills and extensive theoretical knowledge.

MOOCs have some limitations, and this is another reason why I favor the blended approach. Since MOOCs are massive by definition, instructors do not have the time to grade everyone’s work. This means that the task of assessments must be outsourced to either machines or peers. Computers are good at objective-based questions with fixed answers, but beyond that, they are prone to error. Recently, I started auditing a MOOC on computer science. This course assigns homework that involves writing code. The submitted code is then graded by a computer. In programming, there are many possible solutions to the same problem. The computer has to run the risk of either rejecting correct responses or accepting incorrect ones. In my case, the computer accepted numerous wrong answers as correct. A human instructor would not have done so. On top of that, they would have been able to explain why my answers were wrong – something the computer cannot do.

When the issue comes to grading art and poetry, computer-based assessment becomes entirely out of the question. Creativity cannot be graded objectively. The only recourse then is to call upon peers to grade each other. Herein lies another problem. Some form of quality control must be instituted for peer review to work. Otherwise, one student may write an excellent evaluation only to receive a shoddy one in return. EdX attempts to solve this problem by making students use a rubric. Each student is then asked to rate how well other students applied the rubric. This method creates a level of consistency. However the root problem remains. A rubric can handle relatively straight-forward areas like grammar and cohesiveness. But how does a rubric evaluate holistically or assess creativity? Any attempt to do so brings in the personal opinion of the grader, which immediately defenestrates consistency.

Once again, the combined system can be used to solve this problem. College instructors can adapt and assign MOOC content (lectures and objective-based questions) much in the same way they currently assign textbook readings and problem sets. They themselves can then grade subjective content and give personal feedback. I personally prefer this over the “Read your textbook and we’ll go over it again in class” approach. If I read the textbook and the instructor merely explains content that I already understand, then I gain very little by going to class. MOOCs both provide and explain information in the same step. Classes could thereby be turned into a “flipped classroom” where students use class time to actualize concepts learned through MOOCs.

One last reason why I prefer the blended approach is that a lot of self-discipline is needed to succeed in a MOOC. According to one study, the completion rate for MOOCs is less than 7 percent (Parr). One may argue that this can be attributed to the fact that since MOOCs are free and offer no credit, students have less incentive to complete them. Indeed, when San Jose University incorporated MOOCs for credit, the completion rate soared to 83 percent. However, the failure rates for these classes ranged from 56 to 76 percent, leading to these courses being suspended (Oremus). These classes were introductory-level and were not even on difficult subjects.

The results were much better in a blended model. In the very same university, one professor picked out MOOC lectures and practice problems, and assigned them as homework. He then used class time as hands-on problem-solving sessions. In his course, the passing rate was 90 percent. This is especially impressive as the traditionally-taught version of the class had a passing rate of only 55 percent (LaMartina). Hence, a hybrid approach does have tangible merits.

MOOCs enhance college education, and colleges in turn enhance MOOC performance. The primary audience for MOOCs may be those who cannot afford to pay for education, but that does not mean that college students do not benefit too. MOOCs have a lot of potential, and I look forward to seeing them integrated more and more into college curricula.

Works Cited

Allebrand, Cheryl. “Half of Families Can’t Afford College.” Bankrate. 17 Sep. 2007. Bankrate, Inc. 4 Nov. 2013.  [].

LaMartina, David.  “Blended MOOCs: The Best of Both Worlds?” Campus Technology. 21 Aug. 2013. 1105 Media Inc, Ed-Tech Group. 4 Nov. 2013. [].

Oremus, Will. “University Suspends Online Classes After More Than Half the Students Fail.” Slate. 19 July 2013.  The Slate Group, LLC. 4 Nov. 2013. [].

Parr, Chris. “Mooc Completion Rates ‘Below 7%’” Times Higher Education. 9 May 2013. TSL Education LTD. 4 Nov. 2013. [].

Taylor, Matthew. “How Information Technology Impacts My Life.” Online posting. 25 Oct. 2013. Laulima Discussion. 4 Nov. 2013.

8 Responses

  1. I have long held that F2F and MOOC materials can combine synergistically. I’m not a big fan of lectures, but they can be better than books if the lecturer is really good.

    Regarding the physically hands-on work alluded to, some students must have this experience. A career in chemistry requires maximal hours in an actual chemistry lab with modern equipment. However, this experience is totally unnecessary for the business major taking the lab science general education course to complete graduation credits. Experiences that build an understanding of the nature of science and that develop scientific thinking skills are necessary.

    I did not note a comment on the true power of hybrid MOOC-F2F courses, except as implicit in the entire presentation. The classes can be smaller. The potential for learning explodes as the size decreases and the class becomes more of an exchange of ideas in a seminar-like environment than relying on an expert to know every answer.

    Discussion groups don’t truly realize this potential. With a completion rate of seven percent (have to wonder if that means actually taking the final exam, which few auditing students will do) a robust discussion group in the early days will dwindle to just a few who may not even log in the the latter days. Early discussions may include plenty of clueless questions from those who are missing obvious prerequisites for the course, making it hard to separate the signal from the noise.

    While MOOCs can benefit from colleges and vice versa, neither is organized to do so well. If MOOCs become a sort of free textbook for colleges, their creators will have to be rather altruistic to allow this to continue. If colleges do not downsize their classes as a result of having this immense free resource, then they will be taking the primary benefit of college/MOOC hybrids away from their students.

    The final word has yet to be written here. We’re on a journey. We haven’t even seen the impact of truly interactive online software, as opposed to lectures, machine-scored quizzes, and discussion groups, on this area. When that advance comes about, things will be very different. While I’m involved in a small piece of that concept, I wish I could do much more by creating some of the software. At least, I expect to be able to see how it all unfolds.

    • Harry: If MOOCs become a sort of free textbook for colleges, their creators will have to be rather altruistic to allow this to continue.

      One way around this is for college instructors to require MOOC certificates or badges, which would acknowledge both environments. MOOCs don’t have to be an either/or proposition. As Kenji suggests, they’re an infinitely flexible and fluid medium that can be seamlessly integrated into any learning environment. The only limiting factor is the teacher’s imagination.

      Re MOOCs as books: MOOCs take the idea of publishing, which is inherent in online learning, to a whole new level. Educators and service providers are slow to realize the quantitative and qualitative difference between the electronic and paper medium. But they will, eventually, and the realization will be a critical step in the transformation of schools and colleges. From this perspective, lectures are a subset of publishing, and F2F is a further subset along with a wide range of technology enabled options.

      • Having a means to reward the MOOC creators for use in for-credit college classes would help everyone involved. Of course, this is possible. We’ll see how the details sort out. Right now, it’s the wild West.

        Traditional publishers view electronic media as a mere replication of their textbook pages with some added video or animated content in place of the static images on the page and some machine-graded quizzes in place of the homework sets that the end of each chapter. To them, that’s been a HUGE development. To me, it’s absolutely nothing.

        What technology is capable of in education hasn’t been fully plumbed yet. I am staggered by the fact that my technology was in place nearly 15 years ago and is still amazing educators when we demonstrate it. That’s how slowly this market moves.

        Sometime soon, we’ll reach the tipping point. When we do, the publishers will be on board or underwater. You won’t have any trouble recognizing the tipping point. It will make the MOOC phenomenon look like a minor blip. The Christensen and Horn concept of disruption will be so strong that even they will be surprised. The pressure will come from students in higher education and from parents, students, and the community in K-12 education, and it will be unstoppable.

        Suddenly, teacher tenure will be tossed out in order to remove teachers who won’t adapt. Colleges and universities, used to having years to adapt to changes, will have less than a year to change the mode of operation entirely. A few will have a head start. A few will catch up. The rest will founder.

        When the dust finally clears, learning will never be the same again.

        • Harry: Suddenly, teacher tenure will be tossed out in order to remove teachers who won’t adapt.

          My guess is that the change will follow the college library model. In my mind, college libraries are at least a generation ahead of the rest of academia in transitioning to a digital mindset.

          In our college, it didn’t mean the end of tenure or removal of the non-digital but hiring of the digital. The digitals simply reengineered the library for 21st century learning; the non-digitals remained and fit in as they could. After they retired, their positions were filled with digitals.

          The same will probably happen with instruction. Traditional F2F-oriented faculty and administrators will remain, but they will be gradually replaced by online-oriented counterparts. A telling sign may be the University of Hawaii, which appointed David Lassner as interim president in September. He was vice president for Information Technology and chief information officer.

          When educators open the door to technology, they also open the door to change. Once students, faculty, administrators, and support staff personally cross the barrier between offline and online, they’ll begin to grasp the potential of digital over analog and never look back.

          • My point there is that some teachers (K-12) will refuse to change and must be eliminated. The threat of firing will convince most to change but only if tenure does not shield them. Some will simply take early retirement rather than adapt. I cannot imagine the world after the tipping point allowing anyone who interacts with students to ignore technology.

            Libraries are different because they could have both types (analog and digital if you will) working together in the same space. A teacher occupies a singular space alone.

            Colleges are a different world where tenure makes more sense.

            All of the above is predicated on my assertion of a true tipping point. If we slide gently into the new era, then my conclusions will not apply. I’m just applying my most capable crystal ball reading to this. All crystal balls are cloudy.

          • Harry, your tipping point analogy makes sense when we weigh dollars and cents against results. The ROI in K-12 isn’t going to survive in the coming elections. U.S. public schools are like a football team on a long losing streak, and the buck stops at the head coach in the White House. Win or else. With dwindling funds, technology has to be the game plan. Go with players who can make it click, and we have a fighting chance. Stick with the same crew, and we’re back to three and out.

          • My best guess is that the White House has no education expertise and has ceded all to the Dept. of Ed. and Arne Duncan. Wrong choice. When will White House wake up and see this? Charter schools will not solve and may even exacerbate our problems. Silly contests with rules biased toward larger entities, from which innovations never come, also will not help.

            You are exactly right about technology, but which technologies and how applied and why will teachers ever use them? “Build it and they will come,” does not work here. It’s education, after all.

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