Experts Debate the Impact of MOOCs on Education

The large online courses are forcing instructors to rethink classroom approaches, but major changes won't be seen for years, experts say.

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MOOC providers have large quantities of student data that could lead to changes in teaching strategies, experts say.

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Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are praised for providing a free education to people across the world. But they have a murky record in terms of their overall effectiveness, particularly in light of their low student completion rates.

Experts are divided on whether MOOCs can improve the overall quality of higher education in the U.S. Some say the courses have already made a positive imprint, while others say more time has to pass before the effects of MOOCs can be seen in online and brick-and-mortar classrooms. 

[Learn about the controversy behind MOOCs.]

Fiona Hollands, who recently led a study about MOOCs for Columbia University's Teachers College, says there is little data about whether MOOCs are more effective than other learning models.

"Almost no one is doing that work," she says. "It's rare and I don’t really understand why people are avoiding it."

That said, she believes there is some evidence that MOOCs have begun to have a positive influence in on-campus classrooms. The MOOC hype has made instructors rethink how they approach their teaching, she says.

In on-campus classes with online components, known as blended classes, instructors are following in the footsteps of MOOC leaders by dividing their lectures into short segments, giving more frequent assessments and providing more opportunities for problem-solving activities that have proved effective in improving student performance, she says.

[Explore how online education could lower the cost of a degree.]

In some cases, ​instructors are using MOOC materials to supplement their own on-campus courses​, experts say. 

"In blended classrooms, the on-campus university course can leverage the power of MOOCs to free up classroom time for interactive collaboration and discussion, testing and problem-solving," Anant Agarwal, CEO of the nonprofit MOOC provider edX,​ said in an email. At San Jose State University, edX helped create a blended​ electrical engineering course which had higher passing rates than the traditional course, he said.

MOOC providers may also be able to improve teaching practices simply by analyzing the large amount of student performance data they collect, says Peter Shea, an education professor at the University at Albany—SUNY.

"It's still early," Shea says, "but there are high aspirations to do research on how people learn in MOOC environments and some of that research will provide guidance on how to structure and sequence what will already be very high quality content."

Part of the edX​ mission, for example, is to conduct research on "how students learn" and "how technology can transform learning," Agarwal says.​

Others argue that MOOCs can help instructors successfully learn to use peer grading – a popular MOOC technique in which students are assessed by each other – and how to manage a truly international classroom.

[Discover why international students might consider MOOCs.]

"The lessons learned are still coming," says Joel Hartman, an administrator at the ​University of Central Florida and president of the Sloan Consortium, an organization that promotes effective online learning. "I don't think you are going ​to be seeing a very broad impact on what is learned from MOOCs for at least a decade." 

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