From the Chronicle of Higher Education, Monday, March 18, 2013.
The Minds Behind the MOOCs
The Professors Who Make the
By Steve Kolowich
What is it like to teach 10,000 or more students at once, and does it
really work? The largest-ever survey of professors who have taught
MOOCs, or massive open online courses, shows that the process is
time-consuming, but, according to the instructors, often successful.
Nearly half of the professors felt their online courses were as
rigorous academically as the versions they taught in the
The survey, conducted by The Chronicle, attempted to reach every
professor who has taught a MOOC. The online questionnaire was sent to
184 professors in late February, and 103 of them responded.
Hype around these new free online courses has grown louder and louder
since a few professors at Stanford University drew hundreds of
thousands of students to online computer-science courses in 2011.
Since then MOOCs, which charge no tuition and are open to anybody with
Internet access, have been touted by reformers as a way to transform
higher education and expand college access. Many professors teaching
MOOCs had a similarly positive outlook: Asked whether they believe
MOOCs "are worth the hype," 79 percent said yes.
Princeton University's Robert Sedgewick is one of them. He had never
taught online before he decided to co-lead a massive open online
course titled "Algorithms: Part I."
Like many professors at top-ranked institutions, Mr. Sedgewick was
very skeptical about online education. But he was intrigued by the
notion of bringing his small Princeton course on algorithms, which he
had taught for five years, to a global audience. So after Princeton
signed a deal with an upstart company called Coursera to offer MOOCs,
he volunteered for the front lines.
His online course drew 28,000 students when it opened last summer, but
Sedgewick was not daunted. He had spent hundreds of hours readying the
material, devoting as much as two weeks each to recording and
fine-tuning videotaped lectures. The preparation itself, he said, was
"a full-time job."
It paid off. By the time his six-week course was over, the Princeton
professor had changed his mind about what online education could do.
Mr. Sedgewick now classifies himself as "very enthusiastic"
about virtual teaching, and believes that soon "every person's
education will have a significant online component."
The Chronicle survey considered courses open to anyone, enrolling
hundreds or even thousands of users (the median number of students per
class was 33,000). About half of the professors who responded were
still in the process of teaching their first MOOC, while the rest had
led an open online course that had completed at least one full
Many of those surveyed felt that these free online courses should be
integrated into the traditional system of credit and degrees.
Two-thirds believe MOOCs will drive down the cost of earning a degree
from their home institutions, and an overwhelming majority believe
that the free online courses will make college less expensive in
The findings are not scientific, and perhaps the most enthusiastic of
the MOOC professors were the likeliest complete the survey. These
early adopters of MOOCs have overwhelmingly volunteered to try
them-only 15 percent of respondents said they taught a MOOC at the
behest of a superior-so the deck was somewhat stacked with true
believers. A few professors whose MOOCs have gone publicly awry did
not respond to the survey.
But the participants were primarily longtime professors with no prior
experience with online instruction. More than two-thirds were tenured,
and most had taught college for well over a decade. The respondents
were overwhelmingly white and male. In other words, these were not
fringe-dwelling technophiles with a stake in upending the status
Therefore the positive response may come as a surprise to some
observers. Every year the Babson Survey Research Group asks chief
academic administrators to estimate what percentage of their faculty
members "accept the value and legitimacy of online
education"; the average estimate in recent years has stalled at
30 percent, even as online programs have become mainstream.
Professors at top-ranked colleges are seen as having especially
entrenched views. For years, "elite" institutions appeared
to view online courses as higher education's redheaded
stepchild-good enough for for-profit institutions and state
universities, maybe, but hardly equivalent to the classes held on
their own campuses. Now these high-profile professors, who make up
most of the survey participants, are signaling a change of heart that
could indicate a bigger shake-up in the higher-education
Why They MOOC
Professors who responded to The Chronicle survey reported a variety of
motivations for diving into MOOCs. The most frequently cited reason
was altruism-a desire to increase access to higher education
worldwide. But there were often professional motivations at play as
John Owens was drawn to MOOCs because of their reach. He also did not
want to be left behind.
Mr. Owens, an associate professor of electrical and computer
engineering at the University of California at Davis, liked the idea
of teaching parallel computing, a method that allows computers to
execute many tasks at once, to a global audience. Putting his course
on Coursera's platform would be good for the 15,000 students who
registered at no cost, he figured.
But it might also be good for him. It does not take a programming
expert to decrypt the writing on the wall: No matter where you teach,
online education is coming. "I would rather understand this at
the front end," said Mr. Owens, "than be forced into it on
the back end."
A number of the professors in the survey said they hoped to use MOOCs
to increase their visibility, both among colleagues within their
discipline (39 percent) and with the media and the general public (34
This opportunity was not lost on Mr. Sedgewick, the Princeton
professor. "Every single faculty member has the opportunity to
extend their reach by one or two or three orders of magnitude,"
For heavyweights like Mr. Sedgewick, who co-wrote a popular textbook
on algorithms, allowing somebody else to beat him to the punch on that
opportunity would be risky. By volunteering for duty, he was, in part,
defending his roost. "I wouldn't want anybody else's algorithms
course to be out there," said Mr. Sedgewick. He was one of the
few professors in the survey who recommended that students buy a
Nevertheless, most professors did not seem to think that a
MOOC-related boost to their professional profile would equate to a
payday. Just 6 percent were looking to increase their earning power,
and only one hoped that his MOOC work would help him get tenure.
Learning From Online
In May 2012, when the presidents of Harvard University and the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced that they would enter
the MOOC fray with $60-million to start edX, they were emphatic that
their agenda was to improve, not supplant, classroom education.
"Online education is not an enemy of residential education,"
said Susan Hockfield, president of MIT at the time, from a dais at a
hotel in Cambridge, "but an inspiring and liberating
This has become a refrain for traditional universities that have been
early adopters of MOOCs, and many of the professors in The Chronicle
survey seem to have taken the message to heart. Thirty-eight percent
of those surveyed said one motivation was to pick up tips to help
improve their classroom teaching.
Among them is M. Ronen Plesser, an associate professor of physics at
Duke University, who saw the challenge of captivating a vast, fickle
audience as a way to reassess his own teaching techniques. "I
found that producing video lectures spurred me to hone pedagogical
presentation to a far higher level than I had in 10 years of teaching
the class on campus," he said.
The result was an online class that he describes as
"significantly more rigorous and demanding than the on-campus
A key way professors are learning new teaching tricks is by taking
cues from their MOOC students. Coursera, edX, and Udacity all track
the interactions each student has with the course materials, and with
one another, within a given course. Each platform then gives
professors the ability to see data that could tell them, for example,
which methods and materials help students learn and which ones they
find extraneous or boring.
The idea is to glean insights from the online courses that professors
can apply in the traditional classroom, where such data are hard to
Michael J. Cima, a professor of materials science and engineering at
MIT, used data from his MOOC to do a side-by-side analysis of learning
outcomes for the students in his massive online chemistry course and
the ones taking the traditional version on campus.
"I have evidence that the online measurements of outcomes may be
better than what we have been doing in class," Mr. Cima said.
"This surprised me and caused me to challenge some of my
assumptions about how well we do assessment in a residence-based
He is thinking about bringing some of the automated assessment tools
from his MOOC into his traditional course when it starts up again in
the fall. He likes the idea of constantly drilling students with
online quizzes that they can take at their own pace. But there would
have to be one key difference for his MIT students, he said: The
students would have to work on their quizzes in a physical classroom,
with a proctor.
Price of Free Teaching
The insights that come with teaching massive online courses, however,
come at a price. Many professors in the survey got a lot out of
teaching MOOCs, but teaching MOOCs took a lot out of them.
Typically a professor spent over 100 hours on his MOOC before it even
started, by recording online lecture videos and doing other
preparation. Others laid that groundwork in a few dozen hours.
Once the course was in session, professors typically spent eight to 10
hours per week on upkeep. Most professors managed not to be inundated
with messages from their MOOC students-they typically got five
e-mails per week-but it was not unusual for a professor to be drawn
into the discussion forums. Participation in those forums varied, but
most professors posted at least once or twice per week, and some
posted at least once per day.
In all, the extra work took a toll. Most respondents said teaching a
MOOC distracted them from their normal on-campus duties.
"I had almost no time for anything else," said Geoffrey
Hinton, a professor of computer science at the University of
"My graduate students suffered as a consequence," he
continued. "It's equivalent to volunteering to supply a textbook
for free and to provide one chapter of camera-ready copy every week
Mr. Owens, at Davis, had a similar experience. He spent 150 hours
building his MOOC, "Introduction to Parallel Programming,"
for Udacity. More than 15,000 people registered. Once the course
started, he spent about five hours per week on it, posting frequently
on the discussion forums.
Although Mr. Owens did not ask for relief from his normal teaching
load to make time for his MOOC, he doubts that he would have gotten it
if he had asked.
"It's out of 'my own' time, which is quite limited," Mr.
Owens reported. "So, yes, other areas of my job
Most colleges do not yet have a protocol for integrating their
instructors' work on MOOCs into normal faculty work flow. But if the
survey responses are any indication of how much work goes into a MOOC,
institutions may soon have to figure out how to help professors fit
them into their professional lives.
"It takes an immense amount of work to produce an adequate MOOC,"
said Armando Fox, a professor of electrical engineering at the
University of California at Berkeley who has co-taught three MOOCs for
Coursera, "and a staggering amount of work to produce a really
Mr. Owens, for one, said he did not plan to teach another MOOC until
his bosses reduce his classroom teaching load to give time for it. The
continuing participation of top faculty members in massive online
courses, he said, will depend on whether their colleges are willing to
let MOOCs distract them from their traditional duties.
At that point, Mr. Owens said, campus officials will need to ask
themselves whether they want to give that faculty time to online
students, "99 percent of whom who are not at their
Cutting College Costs
Most of the professors whose MOOCs had completed at least one term
reported the number of students who had "passed" the
courses. The average pass rate was 7.5 percent, and the median number
of passing students was 2,600.
In lieu of credit toward a degree, most professors offer certificates
to students who complete massive online courses. Three-quarters of the
professors surveyed said they offered some sort of document certifying
that a student had completed a MOOC.
It remains unclear, however, how seriously those certificates are
being taken by employers. College degrees are still seen as the coin
of the realm.
Perhaps the biggest question surrounding MOOCs is how they might
integrate with the current credentialing infrastructure in a way that
makes college degrees less expensive.
The American Council on Education, a group that advises college
presidents on policy, recently endorsed five MOOCs from Coursera for
credit, and it is reviewing three from Udacity.
If colleges yield to the council's judgment, it could mean that
students who are clever enough to pass a MOOC could redeem their
learning for credit toward a traditional degree. There would be fees
in the process, but no tuition.
Most professors who responded to The Chronicle's survey said they
believed that MOOCs would drive down the cost of college; 85 percent
said the free courses would make traditional degrees at least
marginally less expensive, and half of that group said it would lower
the cost "significantly."
As far as awarding formal credit is concerned, most professors do not
think their MOOCs are ready for prime time. Asked if students who
succeed in their MOOCs deserve to get course credit from their home
institutions, 72 percent said no.
However, it's worth noting that more than a quarter of the professors
felt that their successful MOOC students do deserve credit. Those
respondents include faculty members at Penn, Princeton, Duke, and
Stanford. Most of them led courses that were oriented to math,
science, and engineering.
Robert W. Ghrist, a professor of mathematics and electrical and
systems engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, is among them.
His MOOC, "Calculus: Single Variable," is one of the five
Coursera courses that ACE has recommended for credit.
Fitting his assessments into the parameters of Coursera's auto-grading
system has been somewhat limiting, but no more than the math placement
exams that Penn already uses, said Mr. Ghrist, who previously oversaw
"I would, of course, prefer it if I could read over their work
carefully and follow their logic," he said. But that is a
technology problem that Coursera will soon solve, he believes.
The Penn professor built his course with the express intention of
mimicking, as closely as possible, the version he had taught on campus
for eight years.
"Some MOOCs that I've sampled seem to be a bit watered down for
the sake of mass appeal," said Mr. Ghrist. "My course is
definitely not like that."
In some disciplines, the number of creditworthy MOOCs might depend on
the priorities of professors and their institutions more than the
limitations of online technology. Some professors might choose to
build their courses with formal credit in mind; others might have a
Mr. Ghrist, for one, hopes to see the number of creditworthy MOOCs go
up as massive online courses proliferate. And he hopes that, as they
do, universities like Penn will begin conferring transfer credits on
students who enroll with several MOOCs already under their
belts-allowing them to finish their degrees more quickly, for less
"I have four kids who are going to have to go to college,"
said Mr. Ghrist. By the time they do, the professor fully expects that
MOOCs will be an important component of their applications.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: Dave Chidley for The Chronicle
-- Paul Gries, of the U. of Toronto, has taught MOOCs on
NOTE: THERE ARE MANY COMMENTS TO THIS ARTICLE AT THE END
OF THE ARTICLE AT HE WEBSITE.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
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