Online higher education for the masses

The term ‘massive open online course’, or MOOC (coined by Dave Cormier and Bryan Alexander) describes courses that take place online; are open in the sense that participation is typically free of charge and learning materials can be modified, reused and distributed to others; and reach massive communities – of tens of thousands – of learners.

MOOCs are a relatively new phenomenon, but they recently captured public attention when Stanford University launched a set of free online courses.

Sebastian Thrun, one of the MOOC pioneers at Stanford, created the artificial intelligence course that attracted more than 160,000 users (though only 25,000 finished the course). Inspired by this success he founded Udacity, a for-profit start-up that will use a similar model for online instruction, with the goal of making an entire computer science course available at no cost.

Thrun’s Stanford colleagues Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng also participated in the first round of Stanford MOOCs and subsequently spun off Coursera, another for-profit start-up, which aims to provide a platform for other universities to host similar online courses.

A quick review of the key characteristics these MOOCs share will help us better understand what opportunities they offer to universities and professors.

Open content

Open content lies at the core of these massive online courses. Typically, a series of video lectures, with short quizzes built in, make up the bulk of the instruction for users.

This is good news for traditional universities, who already have vast quantities of high-quality teaching materials ready to share online. And because knowledge generation will continue to take place at universities, especially those that do advanced research, there will always be a need to update and revise materials.

Since 2002, more than 250 universities in the OpenCourseWare movement have been publishing their academic material openly on the web and have shared materials from more than 15,000 courses in a wide range of disciplines and languages. These institutions are well positioned to add online-only courses to their open coursework projects.

A number of online services already allow free hosting and streaming of instructional videos. Since the materials are openly licensed, the need for sophisticated access management is obviated, and the materials can thus be made freely available.

There are not enough subject matter experts to meet the needs of learners, and education systems worldwide are straining to find enough qualified teachers. MOOCs recognise this fact by setting up informal Q&A systems that allow participants to engage with one another.

In some cases where peer-to-peer interactions are not directly supported within an online course, informal learning communities can emerge spontaneously on separate platforms.

Peer-to-peer does not necessarily mean all learners are at the same level, however. Many models attempt to harness the knowledge of more advanced learners to support beginners, and offer medals or badges to learners in recognition of their advancement.

One of the key areas of exploration is how best to structure online interactions to facilitate interactions between beginner learners and advanced learners. Peer-to-peer interactions also generate new content to support future learning. Well-curated records of the most frequently asked questions and the best answers to those questions can be mined by new learners.

Systems to support peer-to-peer learning on the web are widely available at very low cost or without charge. A range of Q&A systems can be self-hosted; open education projects, including OpenStudy and P2PU (Peer 2 Peer U), provide platforms for such interaction; and Google groups, Yahoo groups, Ning sites and Moodle installations can also be used to structure peer-to-peer interaction.


Meaningful assessment of learning remains a challenge for MOOCs. That is one reason why most of the very large courses so far have focused on content areas that allow computable exercises.

As learning takes place online, data that capture learner activity will increasingly be used as a proxy for learning.

Time on site, number of posts and word counts of responses represent the most basic and earliest of these learning analytics, but over time open education systems will grow more adept at drawing evidence of learning out of the actions learners take in interacting with one another online.

It will likely be a long time before automated quizzes and learning analytics can provide a sophisticated assessment of problem-solving and integrated skills application abilities. Both sophisticated learning analytics approaches and crowd-sourcing of peer-review show promise but have not been tested on a large scale.

In the meantime, some MOOCs are considering including more traditional assessments to supplement learning analytics. These include tests taken though testing services with physical locations around the world or assessments of online portfolios by subject matter experts.


While there are already some efforts under way to bridge the gap between informal learning communities to university credit, it may be a while before standard academic credit for open education learning is the norm – or it may never happen at all.

Open education projects are hard at work designing alternative types of recognition. P2PU and the Mozilla Foundation have been collaborating on the development of an ‘open badges’ architecture, a system that will allow any open education programme to offer badges recognising learning accomplishments.

These badges will be displayable on personal web pages and will link back to the sites that issued them and to the materials the learners developed in earning the badge. Winners of the recent Digital Media and Learning competition are currently developing a wide range of applications that will use the badges infrastructure.

Many programmes are experimenting with awarding non-credit certificates, a model used by many of the MOOCs. It is, however, an open question what weight these certificates will carry in the job market.

Another model that seems to hold promise in this regard is the development and management of online learning portfolios. By posting the actual work done in learning – computer programmes, web pages, essays and other direct evidence of learning – students can skip the degrees and certificates that signify learning and share their knowledge and skills directly with potential employers.

The technologies supporting such recognition systems are straightforward and available. Traditional institutions may have a role in offering certificates and other recognitions that would be viewed as legitimate in the labour market.

Learning experience

The learning will be more persistent, with content, peer relationships and metrics extending well beyond the construct of a ‘course’ and spanning our current notions of institutions. Web technologies are rapidly dismantling many of the fundamental constraints that have governed higher education.

Interactions in these new learning systems will not be limited by the confines of the traditional one-semester course. Learners will be able to ‘flash back’ to introductory level courses for review, and ‘flash forward’ to advanced level subjects to see how basic concepts are applied.

In a project learning model, learners can be given an advanced challenge and work backward into prerequisite knowledge as needed, rather than slogging through the basics to get to problems that really interest them.

Through the peer-to-peer relationships built into these systems, learners may remain engaged with one another over the span of many years, instead of the 14 weeks of a traditional course; learning metrics regarding peer support and collaborative skills can be assessed on an ongoing basis across courses in open education systems; and learners build up networks of experts to whom they can turn for help in specific areas like statistics methods or writing.

Expertise will be earned and maintained through ongoing lifelong education, not conferred once and good for life.

Open learning systems offer the possibility for the kind of continual lifelong learning that will be necessary as the pace of technological and scientific knowledge development increases. Like athletes, learners will not just learn once, but will maintain a level of performance ability in their chosen field through ongoing study and participation in learning communities.


Interaction with subject matter experts remains one of the non-commodity aspects of new open educational models like MOOCs and represents a clear opportunity for traditional institutions and professors.

As universities and academics begin to recognise the opportunities for dramatically scaling up educational opportunity, they will look for ways to make their subject matter expertise available in different ways. At the same time, they face competition from informal experts who may not work as professors but who have the required knowledge to help others learn.

Subject matter experts still play an important role in MOOCs, but this role is likely to be very different from that of the traditional professor.

Sebastian Thrun commented in The Chronicle of Higher Education on his experience of reaching 160,000 students that, “having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again. I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture to your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”

One of the benefits of having an audience of tens of thousands of students is that it draws in other contributors who may not be willing to address a room full of a few hundred students.

Professor Boyer was able to bring Burmese democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi into his lecture via a Skype call. Joi Ito invited a string of experts to participate in the digital journalism course he offered on P2PU to informal learners and registered students from KEIO University.

The backing of prestigious institutions is clearly a factor in attracting large numbers of students. Brand recognition is likely to remain a differentiating factor, but MOOCs also offer opportunities for professors at smaller institutions to establish themselves as great instructors.

Not all professors will be excited by Thrun’s vision of Wonderland, but MOOCs may offer opportunities for academics to have their educational cake and eat it too, by being the sage on a huge stage while also being a guide who remains closely by the student’s side – through the power of open and social technologies.

* Jan Philipp Schmidt is the co-founder and executive director of Peer 2 Peer U, an online open higher learning community. Stephen Carson is the external relations director for MIT OpenCourseWare.

* This is an edited version of a longer article, “The Massive Open Online Professor”, which was first published in the May 2012 edition of Academic Matters. It is republished with permission.