SXSWedu: A MOOC Love Fest

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) will not replace universities but will force them to rethink how they educate their students, leaders of two of the leading MOOCs predicted at this week's SXSWedu conference.

Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng appeared with edX President Anant Agarwal on a keynote panel moderated by Laura Pappano, The New York Times reporter who declared The Year of the MOOC in a November article. It was one of the best attended events of the conference on educational technology and innovation, a spin off of the South by Southwest conference. MOOCs have attracted attention for making courses taught by professors from top universities available online, for free, in a format that allows enrollments sometimes topping 100,000 students per course.

"I'm absolutely thrilled to be involved in this very cool event around education," Pappano said enthusiastically. "And how wonderful is it that so many people are so pumped up around education?" She said she found it a refreshing change after many years of covering education. At the same time, she felt obliged to ask whether MOOCs were the subject of too much hype.

"Absolutely, there's been too much hype — and what a good idea!" Agarwal said. "If you and your colleagues have to hype something, what better to hype than education? For the first time, you're going to make the teacher a rock star."

Ng said he is inspired to change the reality in which "a great education is only available to the elite and the privileged — I would love to live in a world where that is no longer the case, where everyone has access to a great education." This was one of several lines he delivered that drew enthusiastic applause from the SXSWedu crowd.

Already the largest MOOC, Coursera nearly doubled its number of university partners recently, to 62. Ng, a Stanford professor whose machine learning course is one of Coursera's most popular offerings, co-founded the company after experimenting with the MOOC format at Stanford. Agarwal is an MIT professor whose edX course on circuits and electronics has also been an online hit. In a bit of good-natured banter, Agarwal countered Coursera's claim of being the largest by calling edX "the quality leader." Where Coursera is a company, edX is organized as a non-profit backed by MIT and Harvard, with 12 universities now participating.

MOOCs are "different from the old-style online courses that were more like correspondence courses," given their massive scale and "new cool tools to help you learn and give feedback in discussion forums," Pappano said. Unlike those more traditional offerings, however, MOOCs are only starting to carve out a path to being recognized for college credit.

MOOCs have had to innovate to address challenges such as the grading of essays because it's impractical for an instructor to handle written homework from thousands of students. Some of the mathematics, science, and technology topics where MOOCs first gained a foothold lend themselves better to multiple choice assessments that can be computer graded.

However, as Ng explained, if you try to convince a professor of poetry to use multiple choice scoring "he will invite you to exit his office." So as Coursera has expanded to offer courses in the humanities, it has had to develop techniques for peer grading — along with ways of testing proficiency in grading before students are allowed to evaluate each other's work, he said.

Agarwal said there have also been pleasant surprises, such as the quality of discussion in the online forums for each course. When his first high-enrollment course launched, he at first thought he and his teaching assistants would have to be chained to their desks answering student questions. Then he noticed that as he was about to intervene in the discussion, "before I could complete an answer, there was an answer from a student in Pakistan. Then, as I was thinking this answer wasn't quite right, before I could correct it someone popped in to answer it … and as instructor, I blessed it as the right answer." This peer-to-peer interaction amounts to "a social network, applied for learning," he said.

Among the reasons the MOOC phenomenon is happening now are social and technological factors including the popularity of social networks such as Facebook and the high-quality online video pioneered by YouTube, Agarwal said.

Meanwhile, cloud computing makes it easier to cope with the need for rapid scaling, something edX encountered when a course it expected to draw a few hundred or a few thousand students wound up enrolling 10,000 "in the first few hours" and ultimately wound up serving about 155,000. Even though typically only a fraction of the students who sign up for a MOOC course wind up completing it, the website had be able to handle the peak load. Fortunately, edX was able to quickly provision additional capacity from Amazon Web Services, Agarwal said.

Clayton Christensen, who in recent years has been making predictions about the future of education based on the theory of disruptive innovation from his book The Innovator's Dilemma, recently warned that there will be "wholesale bankruptcies" of traditional universities that fail to adapt quickly enough. Pappano asked the MOOC leaders whether they agreed, and both said no.

"That would be a tragedy," Ng said, declaring his belief that there is still "something sacred" in the relationship between student and teacher, in person and on campus. "The real value of attending a top university isn't just the content" but also the interaction with faculty and other students, he said. Instead, MOOC content should be used to enhance the university experience by creating "more space for classroom interaction" when students can consume lecture content online, he said. "It preserves that classroom time, that precious three hours that the registrar gives us."

At the same time, Ng loves the idea of making elements of a university education available to working people who might otherwise be forced to "choose between education and groceries" or even to "a poor kid from Kenya" who would otherwise have no way of accessing courses from MIT or Stanford.

"I love Clay Christensen, but he's flat out wrong," Agarwal said. "Of course, there will be disruption. Who knows what the world will be like 10 years from now — it will be different." Yet the MOOC lecture of today is likely to evolve into "the new textbook" that serves as the basis for reinventing how university education works, rather than replacing it. "This will improve the quality for universities, and I think students will come in larger numbers to universities," he said.

The real impact of MOOCs may be in pioneering new instructional techniques that will find their way back on campus, as well as expanding the limits of what's possible with online education. For example, although traditional science labs might be hard to replicate online, one biology instructor is using virtual gaming tools to let students construct gene sequences, Agarwal said. "I think we can actually be better in real life in many areas."

Another advantage of this model is that people who aren't university students yet can take MOOC classes to get ready. "Won't that be wonderful if high school students come in learning more?" Ng asked. The effect will probably wind up being similar to having taken advanced placement courses, where even if credits don't transfer a student might be able to "test out" of taking an introductory course and move on to taking more challenging ones, he said. Ng also sees great potential for working professionals to come up to speed by taking a series of MOOC courses and then enrolling in a more traditional program to finish a degree.

Both men talked about the need for continuous, life-long learning to replace the traditional notion of a college education as a one-time event. "To go to school for four years and then for the next 40 years coast on what you learned in college — that doesn't make any sense in today's world," Ng said. "Each of us needs to get regular booster shots of knowledge in order to remain current."

Although MOOCs won't replace universities, they are "causing universities to rethink what's possible with education," Ng said.


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