Education Opinion

MIT Students on the Risks and Rewards of MOOCs

By Justin Reich — March 09, 2013 4 min read
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Once again, I turn to my incredibly thoughtful undergraduates in the MIT Scheller Teacher Education Program for insights and perspectives on emerging technologies. This past week, my students chose to debate the value of MOOCs in education. These conversations have a special resonance at MIT, where many students are participating in classes with a edX equivalent and several have worked for edX or on particular courses.

Let me share a prompt that this week’s current events facilitators created, and then I’ll share excerpts from their responses. (Using their words to fill my weekly quota allows me to go back to grading their papers...)


First, read these two short articles:
1. The Chronicle - To MOOC or not to MOOC
2. The Chronicle - More-Than-MOOCs

In light of the two articles, discuss your thoughts about your online experience. In particular, keep these questions in mind:

1. How does your experience in an “traditional” class compare to an online class?
2. Do MOOCs get students to learn what is important about a subject?
3. What can MOOCs accomplish that traditional courses cannot? (And vice versa?)
4. What does/should the future of MOOCs look like?

Personalized Pacing

I think another key point in considering MOOC’s is that they allow the student to have more freedom in their pace of learning. This can be seen on both a small scale and a large scale. If you look at just one unit of a class, one online student may just skim through the material in order to take the test whereas another student is allowed to watch each lecture three times, pausing and playing as they wish. Because of this, students have more flexibility in how they learn and can take different approaches.

Also, in the long run MOOC’s give the student the opportunity to get as far ahead as he or she wishes. With so many of these classes online, if a student is interested in learning linear algebra he or she can learn it now, on their own time, vs. having to wait for whenever the physical class should be.

New Admission Standards

I am scared and excited for the future of education with MOOCs becoming popular. I forecast their accessibility to pre-college students to radically change the playing field when it comes time for them to start applying. Suddenly, all these students who previously were getting held back by the lack of challenge from their schools will now have access to learn whatever they want.

I expect that within the next decade, it will be a prerequisite to take x amount of classes via an online medium. In terms of society moving forward, it sounds like a wonderful thing that I am all in favor of. The problem comes when I try to place myself in that future. If MIT required me to take, two classes let’s say, through Edx, I would have a hard time fitting that into my high school schedule. The worst scenario comes in the interim period before it is a request and only the students that are crazy motivated take these classes. In that time period, when all of my peers applying to MIT would be in MOOCs, I know that I would not have gotten into MIT.

Taking it out to humanity as a whole, having pre-college kids take MOOCs would be a great leap forward. By offering higher learning to kids that aren’t being challenged in high school, universities can track brilliant students more easily. And, theoretically, freshman would come into college with a better foundation.

Adaptive Content

What if, for example, we designed MOOCs that, when illustrating a principle during lecture, could use examples which were designed for the student’s context? After all, most online communities already require members to fill in their age, location etc.

Or, if we had webcams that would interpret student’s emotions (bored, confused, impatient, distracted etc) and speed up /slow down a lecture/provide more illustrations/segway to an activity as needed. This technology (invented in MIT’s Media Lab, no less), in fact, is already used by marketing companies to score consumer’s reactions to their products online by reading their facial expressions via webcam, instead of written/multiple-choice feedback: http://allthingsd.com/20120807/mit-emotion-sensing-start-up-affectiva-backed-by-kleiner-perkins-and-horizon-ventures/

On this note, I think future successful MOOCs will not be digitalized videos of highly charismatic educators, but be designed by collaboratives of educators who can distill the factors that make such educators so effective, and leverage technology to apply that on a massive scale at an individual level.

Hands and Minds

I would like to hear what people have to say about how MOOCs fit into MIT’s culture of “Mens et Manus.” Although most general ed requirements are large lectures that don’t have a significant hands-on component, 8.02 (Physics and Magnetism) is an exception. When I took 8.02, I participated in several labs that demonstrated the physics I was learning right before my eyes. I don’t see how MOOCs can ever replicate this experience in the online classroom setting. While there are plenty of applets (8.02 even uses some of them), these are never as engaging for me as actually physically doing something with my hands. But who knows, maybe I’m just biased because of my background in mechanical engineering.

Hopes and Fears

That being said, I also feel that MOOCs can and will play a valuable role in the future of education. The simple fact that MOOCs dramatically increase accessibility to education gives them value in itself. I’m excited to see the future of MOOCs and how they impact a typical college experience but I also hope that the interactive aspects of the traditional classroom are not lost in the process of modernization.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.