Tag Archives: moocs

 How MOOCs Foil Distraction

By George Leef:

With the surge in online education over the past few years, one course at the University of California has been exceptional. “Learning How to Learn” with an enrollment of 1,192,697 since it was initially offered last year, is the world’s most popular online course, according to The New York Times, narrowly beating out “Machine Learning.” Students who have taken it include cardiologists, engineers, lawyers, war refugees in Sudan, and 12-year old kids.

“Learning How to Learn” is the creation of neuroscientist Terrence Sejnowski of the Salk Institute and Oakland University professor Barbara Oakley.  What is so fascinating about the course is that it teaches how the brain functions – the knowledge that enabled Professor Oakley to go from being, as she admits in this Nautilus article, “a terrible student” who “flunked my way through elementary, middle, and high school math and science” to a professor of engineering.

Related: MOOCs: What You Need to Know about Them Now

She had great difficulty with college course material, especially math, because the standard fifty-minute class with homework assignments didn’t convey the material effectively. Eventually, Oakley realized that the problem was the way the educational experience was structured did not match up well with the way our brains work best.

She explains, “Human brains have evolved with a flitting, fleeting ability to maintain focus on any one thing. Those who kept too fixed a gaze on the wildebeest they were stalking could end up being killed by the lions stalking them. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that humans may not have been meant to sit boxed up for prolonged periods, focused on a teacher in a classroom.” In short, she says, “We’re built to be distracted.”

Short Bursts of Attention

That is why online education can be far superior to the traditional arrangement of putting a number of students in a room with a teacher or professor at an assigned time for a span of 50 minutes. While some learning can occur in that format, it is decidedly sub-optimal. Most students learn more in short bursts of attention highlighted with motion, followed by an interaction (a quiz of some kind) to ensure that they grasped the content.

Once Barbara Oakley figured that out, she was able to conquer the math and earn her Ph.D. in engineering. She learned how to learn the abstruse concepts. Well-designed online courses make it easier for students to progress through the material they need to learn.

Oakley’s experience matches up perfectly with that of Kevin Carey, who signed up for the daunting online MIT introductory biology course and wrote about his hard-won success in his book The End of College, which I reviewed here.

The Feedback Loop

Lacking in the science background expected of students attempting the course, Carey was able to earn a solid B only because he could listen (and watch) the videos at times of his choosing, with no distractions. He had the ability to go back over a point as often as necessary, consult with other students in study groups, and benefit from frequent quizzes so he’d know if he really understood the material or not.

That last element, the feedback loop, is especially important.

Oakley explains that research from physics shows that “students don’t really learn from careful explanations – they learn from making mistakes….Mistakes in the frequent low-stakes quiz questions available online can force students in physics—or any other subject—to revisit the explanation.”

Stopping a “real” class every few minutes to quiz the students and get their corrected answers back to them is hardly possible.  But in an online course, the feedback loop is a feature easily built in, one that simultaneously keeps students attentive and increases their comprehension of the subject matter.

Innovations in learning, however, have led to a Luddite reaction from many educators who don’t want to change what they have been doing for years or fear that online courses will make their jobs will disappear.

Oakley calls them the “MOOC deniers.”

Among them is Professor David Bromwich of Yale, who recently wrote an article entitled, “Trapped in the Virtual Classroom.” Bromwich argued that online coursework “discourages more complex thinking about the content and aims of education.” University of Pennsylvania Professor Robert Zemsky brushes aside the development of MOOCs claiming that they’re “neither pedagogically nor technologically interesting.”

Fortunately, educational traditionalists can say whatever dismissive, misinformed, or hostile things they want to about online courses without having the slightest impact on their growth. Educators like Oakley and Sejnowski will keep on improving their courses and large numbers of students will continue to give enroll in them and learn from them.

There is probably no more free market in America than the market for educational material. Nothing can prevent people from offering different modes of learning and students from trying them. No governmental agency (at least to my knowledge) has the power to regulate online education. Whereas incumbents can and often do turn to regulators to stifle new competition in other markets, education remains a wonderfully laissez-faire domain.

Don’t get me (or Professor Oakley) wrong. We are not saying that online courses are always the best or that face-to-face education will disappear. Our argument is simply that by expanding the range of choice for students, online courses catalyze healthy competition. That is vital in education, a field that has long rested contentedly.

The lessons from “Learning to Learn” and other MOOCs can help professors improve their “real” classes. They alone are not the answer to improving education. Oakley writes, “That will come from a variety of sources: MOOCs, resources developed by textbook companies, and teachers themselves. Online assets will not serve as a replacement for in-person instructors—rather, they’ll serve as assets, provide high-quality personalized tutoring and great testing materials with rapid grading.” (If you want to look into “Learning to Learn” yourself, you can do so here.)

How the Brain Learns

We often hear complaints that colleges are “failing their students” because high percentages drop out. I have never regarded that complaint as worth listening to; it’s the students who fail by not doing what it takes to pass.

But Oakley’s work casts a new light on this matter. Something can be said for the argument that if a school doesn’t encourage its faculty to look into what we have learned about our brains and does all it can to incorporate the research into their courses, it has indeed failed its students.

Instead of devoting time and money to workshops on “diversity” and similar fads, colleges should consider a faculty workshop on how to improve teaching effectiveness. Many professors will grumble, but the alternative to doing so might be unemployment.

George Leef is director of research for the John William Pope Center for Policy Research.

Why College Today Is a Mishmash

Kevin Carey is convinced that online learning has created a watershed moment in the history of higher education.  Not since Johannes Gutenberg assembled an ensemble of movable type, meltable alloy, oil-based ink, and a screw press in 1439 has there been such a moment—or so says Carey in his new book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere.

It is a strong assertion that rests on the relatively fragile facts of no more than twenty years of shaky experiments with the new technology.  If we stick with the Gutenberg analogy, online learning is still in the era of incunabula, that period before 1500 when artisans were still working out what to do with the printing press.  As often as not the early printers set aside Gutenberg’s movable type in favor of a carved wooden block for each page.  Woodblock printing could retain some of the delicate beauty of medieval ornamented manuscripts, but it couldn’t compete with the speed and economy of production and the ease of correction of movable type.

A Serious Man

Kevin Carey is among the handful of contemporary writers on higher education who merit serious attention.  He is far from alone in his enthusiasm for online learning and his belief that it will transform higher education.  But he is a far better writer than other enthusiasts and his book deserves the attention of even those who view the new technologies as a mere diversion from more important things.

In the second chapter of The End of College, Carey compresses into 25 pages the history of the university from the founding of the University of Bologna in 1088 to the floodtide of degrees from American colleges and universities in 2012.  It is a neat performance, free of ponderous explanation, narrowing swiftly to the matters at hand, and yet touching nearly all the key matters.  The modifier “nearly” is needed because Carey (deliberately I suppose) skirts the topic of how universities have been shaped by and helped to share broader political and social movements.

A word on this before turning to Carey’s actual subject.  Carey is alert to how higher education has always responded to the changing needs for “intellectual capital.” The medieval university, he writes, arose out of particular circumstances that brought students together in towns where knowledge could be organized and shared.  Universities were from the start the seedbeds of what we would now call transnational elites.  But they also became seedbeds of nationalism, romantic revolutionary ardor, and later Marxism.  In the United States, the history of higher education has been interwoven in complicated ways with religious aspiration and various egalitarian movements, including efforts to advance the rights of women and racial minorities.  It would seem difficult to explain the history of American higher education over the last half century without treating race and racial preferences as a central topic. Yet the topic is entirely missing in The End of College—as are the topics of campus radicalism from SDS to BDS; the sustainability movement; free speech controversies; and the politicization of higher education.

These blind spots are no less evident in Carey’s other writings on American higher education.  Perhaps it is best to say that he knows his audience, which is liberal, self-satisfied, and not perturbed that colleges and universities have become leftist monocultures.

What Charles Eliot Did

What does perturb Carey is that American higher education is a mishmash of efforts to achieve three competing goals:  vocational training, the research enterprise, and the liberal arts.  None of these is accomplished especially well, although the liberal arts come off the worst.  Carey places the blame for the mishmash at the feet of Charles Eliot, the Harvard University president who in 1869 invented the “elective system,” and who also made the bachelor’s degree a prerequisite for admission to Harvard’s graduate and professional schools.  The elective system, soon copied at almost every other college and university, meant the demise of the core curriculum and its replacement by an expensive and expansive collection of courses that led to limited learning and incoherent programs.  In Carey’s assessment, Eliot also opened the door for the faculty to be made up of research specialists who have no training in or necessarily any aptitude for teaching.  The de-emphasis on the core curriculum and the dominance of research over teaching are two sides of the same coin.

But that coin is burnished to a golden gleam with the rhetoric of liberal arts education, endlessly deployed by college presidents who have redefined the “liberal arts” as whatever their institutions happen to be doing at the moment.  Learning to “think critically” covers just about any contingencies short of grunt labor, but maybe that too if the labor is spent sorting recyclables or undertaking other sweaty tasks on behalf of social justice.

Rich in Characters and Ideas

In the 2013 spring semester, Carey enrolled in the MIT online course, The Secret of Life, taught by biology professor Eric Lander.  The course was one of those that MIT made available as a MOOC through the Harvard-MIT online collaboration, edX.  Carey was enthralled by this enormously difficult course, and despite his non-science undergraduate and graduate education, stuck with it, problem sets and all.  The End of College carries The Secret of Life through most of its chapters as Carey weighs its lessons and does the writerly equivalent of turning over proteins and amino acids to see how things fit together.

It is a book rich in characters as well as ideas.  The portrait of Stephen Joel Trachtenberg in chapter 3—the former president of George Washington University and one of the people who unleashed the terrific price spiral that has turned American higher education into a cul-de-sac of campus luxury, student debt, and intellectual mediocrity—is fair-minded and finely etched.  Carey’s conversation with Trachtenberg is one of a dozen or so encounters that he draws on to develop his thesis that the old university—what he calls “the hybrid university”—is on the way out and that the new online thing, “the university of everywhere,” is on the doorstep.

Is it really?  The End of College is the best-argued case I have seen yet that digital learning will transform higher education.  Carey is fully aware of the inertial resistance to that transformation.  Our existing colleges and universities have strong institutional reasons to impede it even as they incorporate some of its technology.  And there are deep sources of social and cultural resistance from a public that is invested in the older forms of credentialing and prestige.  “The hybrid university will not disappear tomorrow,” he writes, “but they (hybrid universities) have been ripping off parents and students for decades by shortchanging undergraduate learning.”  There are sober thinkers on the other side of this, such as Andrew Delbanco, who have argued the crisp opposite:  that online education is the barbarian that threatens to despoil undergraduate learning.

The barbarians, if that is what they are, have now found their most eloquent champion in Kevin Carey. Let the contest begin.  Unleash the broadband of war.  Let MOOCs mix it up with Morrill; Gutenberg grapple with GitHub; and edX close quarters with Eliot.  However this works out, Carey acquits himself well on the topic at hand.

A Cautious Word about MOOCs

By J.M. Anderson


MOOCs are all the rage. Not a day goes by without someone extolling how they will transform and rescue higher education: they will democratize it; they will revolutionize it; they will make it more affordable. In an essay here yesterday, Richard Vedder outlined their promise of positive impact.

At the same time, critics question their effectiveness and fear that they will harm American higher education. For instance, Lester Lefton, president of Kent State University, goes so far as to claim that they will devalue what colleges and universities have been especially good at creating–“a real diversity of thought.”  Whether colleges and universities promote genuine diversity of thought is questionable, as readers of this site well know, but the current debate about the quality, cost-effectiveness, and viability of MOOCs is misguided. It’s simply too soon to say.

What we can say is that MOOCs–whether you love ’em or hate ’em–undermine what has traditionally constituted education at the college level through the Massive Online Outsourcing of Courses.

Continue reading A Cautious Word about MOOCs

The Unstoppable MOOCs


Richard Vedder

Although difficult to measure, it is unlikely that higher
education has had any productivity advance in the 50 years since I finished
college. Economists like Princeton’s William Baumol have argued that rising
college costs are inevitable, given inherent limitations on reducing the cost
of disseminating knowledge -only so many people can fit into a room to hear a

Yet on-line education, including massive open on-line
courses (MOOCs), are changing that. Prestigious universities like Harvard,
M.I.T., and Stanford are working with various providers to offer courses taught
by well known and often very effective professors. Coursera, Udacity, edX and
others are providing increasing numbers of courses where students can learn.
They join other low-cost options such as provided by StraighterLine and the
extensive, high quality free offerings of the Saylor Foundation, a pioneer in
the free open source movement. Khan Academy also offers materials at all levels
of learning, and some of those materials are used by college providers.

Continue reading The Unstoppable MOOCs

We Must Embrace Higher Ed Reform

History Channel’s
popular series “The Men Who Built America”
portrays an incredibly wealthy – yet worried – John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller,
who earned much of his vast fortune by producing and refining kerosene, was
facing competition not from rival magnates – the Carnegies or Vanderbilts – but
from the likes of Thomas Edison and Nikolas Tesla, who sought to harness electric
light to affordably power the homes of millions of Americans. 

Rockefeller quickly realized he had to find another
market for his kerosene, or risk losing his wealth, standing, and influence. Rather
than trying to stop it, Rockefeller had the entrepreneurial skill to recognize
that his industry had to change when confronted with a fundamentally new and
transformative form of competition.  It’s evident that many of today’s
colleges are trying to block inevitable change, through barriers such as accreditation,
while others realize they have to redefine their industry.

America’s colleges and universities stand on the same precipice.
A disruption of the higher education market through online learning and more
specifically, through Massively Open Online Courses or MOOCs, is underway,
precipitated by untenable college costs. And unless Traditional U rethinks its business model, and for that matter, its
raison d’être, it will face an uphill
battle to stay competitive in a rapidly changing higher ed market. As Stuart
Butler and I write in a recent paper we published:

“Traditional higher
education, however, may no longer be able to ignore the revolution at its
doorstep. Dramatic changes are on the horizon as entrepreneurial educators
experiment with radically different business models and approaches to

Students, parents, and taxpayers will be the
beneficiaries of those dramatic changes. Innovative start-ups such as Coursera, edX, and Straighterline offer courses for a fraction of what they cost at
traditional universities, or, offer courses that are altogether free. Given
this new environment of open access to high quality content, one can imagine a
day when students pursue a menu approach to higher education, piecing together
their degree from a variety of sources instead of spending four years and
thousands of dollars obtaining a bachelor’s degree at a single institution.

Such a menu approach would allow students to home in on
the courses they need to be marketable and to succeed in the workplace. Their
course selection could be guided by independent third parties- businesses or
non-profits for example – who lend their “seal of approval” to a given course.
Such an approach could radically reduce costs, improve access, and provide
valuable information to employers.

But there is a significant barrier to the much-needed
transformation of higher education: accreditation. Accreditation has become a
poor gauge of college quality. Schools rarely lose accreditation once it is
granted, despite widespread recognition that the quality of higher education
has been on the decline for decades.

At the same time, colleges and universities must toil
through the bureaucratic and time-consuming accreditation process in order for
students to be eligible for federal loans. Such a system hinders innovation,
creates an inflexible college experience for students, and results in accredited
courses of questionable academic value.

The first step toward reforming higher education is
reconfiguring accreditation and unleashing a new higher education business
model. To do that, federal policymakers should end government sanctioning of
accrediting agencies, making accreditation voluntary; reputations dependant on
market forces, not government approval. At the same time, federal financing
should be unbundled from accreditation.

Traditional universities face a dilemma: Americans are
coming to the realization that too often a bachelor’s degree just isn’t worth
the average $25,000 in student loan debt it costs. Employers realize that that
pricey piece of paper is a poor indication of the skills and knowledge of a
prospective employee.

Rockefeller ultimately lost the battle to light America’s
homes, but he remained a powerful player in American industry. He shifted his
focus to oil, using what was once a byproduct – gasoline – to fuel the
“horseless carriages” mass produced by Henry Ford. Colleges need to likewise
shift their focus and recognize that in a time when the acquisition of basic
knowledge is cheaper than ever, degrees cannot remain historically expensive.

By embracing the budding online revolution, they can do
just that. Federal policymakers can aid that transformation by removing
barriers such as the current government-driven accreditation system, and
allowing the market to determine quality.


M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at The Heritage Foundation