What We've Learned About MOOCs

Online education won't replace the residential experience, but it has a place.

May/June 2014

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What We've Learned About MOOCs

Photo: Linda A. Cicero

Online learning—and its potential to transform higher education—has been a hotly debated topic in recent years. Will students, as one article speculated, attend class electronically, still dressed in their PJs at 11 a.m.? Or will they attend at midnight?

In 2011, Stanford made news with its enormously popular MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). After our faculty offered three free computer science courses online—none for credit—hundreds of thousands of people around the world signed up. This launched a period of experimentation, during which we learned much. The vast majority of students registering for free MOOCs do not complete them, for a variety of reasons, ranging from lack of commitment to discovering the course is too hard. Most MOOCs have had completion rates below 10 percent and, in many, less than one-third of the students who do the first assignment complete the course.

Since those early offerings, we have explored many ways technology could be used to advance learning. Our initial focus is to improve the education of our existing students. For example, large lectures are not as effective in engaging today's students. Online lectures may work as well and, by incorporating interactive quizzes, improve learning. Flipping the classroom—putting lectures online, with students and faculty meeting in small interactive sessions—may produce better results. More than 100 faculty have experimented with on-campus and public courses, producing more than 60 distinct MOOCs. Topics have ranged from the humanities to entrepreneurship to engineering. Most faculty employed overlapping material in their on-campus and public courses.

Online analytics used with such courses allow us to study the effectiveness of our pedagogy. If students are having trouble with material, we can discover quickly before they reach an exam unprepared. For example, working with mechanical engineering professor Sheri Sheppard and education professor emeritus Robert Calfee, civil and environmental engineering professor Sarah Billington is integrating different online exercises to measure their efficacy on student learning in Introduction to Solid Mechanics. Understanding student motivation and its relationship to achievement is also critical. Psychology professor Carol Dweck has done substantial research on mindset and Daniel Greene, a Graduate School of Education doctoral student, is conducting intervention research, measuring the effect of helpful suggestions inserted in online courses.

Executive education and continuing education are also good venues for online learning. Many of Stanford's schools offer programs on campus. But the number of people we can accommodate is limited, and proximity to campus is an issue. The Stanford Center for Professional Development in the School of Engineering is using some of the new technologies to broaden its reach, as are the School of Medicine and School of Education. Through its Ignite program, the Graduate School of Business is teaching professionals around the world the skills needed to develop new ideas and products.

MOOCs can provide access to those who live in remote parts of the world or otherwise lack good educational opportunities. One of the most popular free MOOCs is computer science professor Dan Boneh's Cryptography, offered a record nine times on Coursera. Looking forward, I can envision communities of learners developing naturally around free courses—perhaps a "Course-of-the-Month Club" stimulating the exchange of ideas. In fact, the State Department has taken up this idea in connection with Democratic Development, a course offered by Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Affairs.

Online learning will not replace residential education, but it can enrich the educational experience on many levels. Stanford is discovering new ways to use it and to measure its effectiveness. We believe it will play a significant pedagogical role in this century, and we are poised to advance the field and extend Stanford's legacy of innovation.

John Hennessy was the president of Stanford University.

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