The Four Lessons I Learned by Taking a MOOC


Very few people who enroll in MOOCs (massive open online courses) tell us about the experience. I just took one and learned these lessons:

Lesson One: Professors need to start phasing out in-class lecturing now.

Based on my own experience as a student and as an adjunct professor, the vast majority of professors spend much of their time in class lecturing. I suspect this will not last in the age of MOOCs. Not that the lecture will become obsolete–indeed, the lecture as a pedagogical tool has had amazing resilience. Lecturing arose because books were once both rare and prohibitively expensive, and lecturing made it necessary for only one person to read while others took notes. Of course, the printing press, VHS tape, and YouTube have all shattered this justification for the lecture, yet the lecture survived. I’m betting it will survive MOOCs as well. 

However, the resiliency of the lecturer is another question altogether. It will become extremely difficult to charge a lot of money for in-person lecturing if MOOCs are willing to give away lectures for free, especially as the quality of online lectures improves. To be sure, this does not mean that professors will be obsolete; rather, we simply must  figure out where professors add value. In a world where MOOCs (and other sources) saturate the market with free high-quality lectures, a professor’s greatest value comes from non-lecturing activities best performed in person: guiding students through complex examples, providing hands on demonstrations, leading group discussions, mentoring students, grading, etc.

While painful for some, viewing professors as complementary to online programs will arguably improve education in the long run. As former NYU professor Robert T. Morrison stated about the lecture, “Teachers are expensive, and we can’t afford to waste the ones we’ve got on this glorified stenography.” Freeing professors from lecturing obligations will allow them to focus on what they do better than anyone or anything else — teach.  

Lesson Two: For students taking a MOOC, self-motivation and self-discipline are even more important.

One advantage of in-person courses is the expectation that students will show up at certain times. Indeed, during my MOOC experience I felt none of the nagging guilt about skipping class that I experienced in my college years.  My ability to work on the course at any time made it easy to put it off. In fact, I’m still working on the last few weeks of course material even though the course is already over. This procrastination wasn’t about a lack of time – for instance, I am completely up to date on the TV show The Walking Dead – but rather a lack of self-discipline.

Lesson Three: MOOC students ought to think more carefully about what courses to take, and what they want to get out of them.

MOOCs require students to think much more deeply about what they want to get out from their education. For instance, I signed up for my MOOC to learn how to use the R statistical package. Since I only wanted to see examples of other people’s R code, I watched the videos and lecture notes but avoided the assignments and quizzes. Had I taken this course in a traditional institution, I would have had no choice.

Students will also need to put more thought into the courses they take. When I was in college years ago, I chose many of my courses based on graduation requirements and scheduling. In a world of MOOCs, however, those considerations will increasingly be pushed aside. Competency-based evaluation of knowledge will increasingly replace seat time/credit hours as the milestones of education, and MOOCs (or their successors) are tailor-made for that world. While this change will mark an improvement in many respects, one consequence is that students will need to assume a greater role in determining the shape of their education.

Lesson Four: Policymakers should stop subsidizing universities and start subsidizing education.

The federal financial aid programs are basically set up to subsidize university-based education exclusively. As my MOOC experience demonstrated, universities are not the only place education can occur. To that end, federal policy should support education regardless of who provides it.

To illustrate the bizarre outcomes of the current system, consider that in 2010-11  Johns Hopkins University had around 5,800 full time equivalent (FTE) undergraduate students who received millions of dollars of federal financial aid ($3.4 million in Pell grants and $17.8 million in federal loans). In contrast, none of the students who participated in my MOOC -not the 50,000 who watched the video lectures, the 20,000 who took the quizzes, or the 5,500 who received certificates of completion – received any financial aid. This, despite the fact that the course I took was taught by Dr. Jeff Leek, a professor at Johns Hopkins. This bizarre outcome — generous aid available for one types of learning and no aid for another– massively distorts the delivery of higher education. The financial aid system needs an overhaul if the goal is to subsidize real education.

MOOCs certainly have the potential to revolutionize higher education. But realizing that potential will require adaptation on the part of students, professors, and policymakers. I hope the four lessons I learned by taking a MOOC will provide some insight into what the future may hold.


2 thoughts on “The Four Lessons I Learned by Taking a MOOC

  1. More time for recitation might be good, but using class for student discussion with the instructor acting more as a coach/facilitator is a bette outcome. The professor could, however, be ready to ask the pointed questions that destroy erroneous consensus, hopefully due to his superior knowledge of the subject.
    I found it interesting, as Alex Tabarrok pointed out from his experience, only about 1/3 of the lecture is new material. The rest of the time is repetition to pick up more of the class who missed it through inattention, etc. With video lectures, you don’t need the repetition since the student can rewind and repeat. So theoretically, video lectures can be shorter or cover more material. The lecture is no longer a one-shot performance with repetition if videos become more than a classroom recording. Plus, it loses the matinee performance varied by random conditions, which also impact student receptiveness, such as illness, discomfort, personal issues, etc.
    Nothing above is specific to the MOOCs. A conventional class could use at home lecture videos and devote the class time to discussion and clarification. Of course, the would move the lecture alongside the reading which may or may not be accomplished prior to the class. Leaving behind the laggards in hopes they’ll learn to prepare doesn’t seem to be a winning strategy in this time of student evals of instructors.

  2. We seem to be stumbling towards a system of great lectures delivered online combined with in-class time devoted to problem solving and Q+As. That may be a very good solution.
    By way of contrast, the methodology used in most law school classes is somewhat different. While some law professors lecture, most try to engage the class by asking questions of students, especially in introductory classes. Asking probing follow-up questions can help students both figure out how to analyze a legal problem and construct a legal argument as well as to get comfortable doing so in front of a not-necessarily friendly audience. I’m not sure that online lectures, even by the greatest law professors in the world, adds much to the experience, at least so long as the in-class professor is moderately accomplished at the task. But perhaps in more advanced subject areas, where lectures are more common, it would be wonderful – for both students and other professors – to have access to lectures from the greatest minds in the area.

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