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BELLTONES: Massive Open Online Courses--Moving Ahead With MOOCs

By Mary Ann Bell - Posted Nov 1, 2012
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This was the academic year I was going to take things a little easier. I’m not talking about being a slacker but rather planning to fulfill my appointed duties and not take on new projects. Last year I was in the throes of writing a book, which is now in completion state. I also was up for promotion and did the documentation to meet all requirements for that. Done and done! So this year I was going to enjoy teaching, write my beloved column, and do the other things expected as part of my job. I was not planning to get all excited about something new and different. Sure I love to keep up with Web 2.0, but that is built into my regular teaching and learning routine. This was going to be the year when I could stop and smell at least a few roses.

With that attitude firmly in place, I joined several colleagues in attending a meeting with other campus professors about a new way of delivering instruction, something with the very weird name of MOOC. “What the heck is a MOOC?” was my first question. My mild curiosity was enough to get me across campus to find out. What I learned left me energized, excited, and chomping at the bit to start a new project. In fact, I confess that I have not been this excited about something new in years. I now want to go out and MOOC all over the place!

New Kid on the Online Instruction Block

So what is this thing called MOOC? The acronym stands for Massive Open Online Course. I am grateful to Beverly Irby and Hannah Gerber, both Sam Houston State University profs, for enlightening me at the meeting. When I first heard that definition, my thought was, “Me? Get involved in something massive? I don’t think so!” I started to shrink down in my chair and look inconspicuous in case work was going to be handed out. The first thing I learned was that a MOOC in some ways resembles a webinar. But then I learned that a MOOC is much more. Think webinar on steroids. I found myself straightening up in my chair a little bit and listening more closely, not immediately realizing I was moving away from my semi-slacker idea for the year.

MOOCs are new kids on the online instruction block. Like many other online phenomena, they are growing in popularity at a rapid rate. The MOOC environment I have looked at closely, Coursera, was just launched in April 2012. It is the largest MOOC platform. Coursera actually grew out of online instruction being offered at Stanford University. It vows to be selective and only offer instruction from gifted professors at top-rated universities. Participating schools include Stanford, Harvard, and MIT, and the numbers are sure to grow. My school, Sam Houston State University, is one of many regional institutions making plans to jump on the MOOC bandwagon very soon. In fact, by the time this article is published, we may have our very first courses in place, and I want to be part of that. But wait! What about my promise to back away from new projects? Well by the end of the meeting, that was a thing of the past.

So what is a MOOC? One important attribute of such a course is that it is free or very inexpensive. MOOCs offer access to stellar instructors and instruction that is accessible to the general public because of online entry and low- or no-cost. This is a huge drawing card. The numbers of learners signing up for courses demonstrates that. Classes can attract hundreds and even thousands of participants from all over the world.

Economies of Scale

Exciting though this all sounds, the first question people asked at our meeting was, “How does this translate into financial gain and/or support my work?” Professors are not overpaid, regardless of what some pundits may say. We need to think about how our hard work translates into strengthening our academic standing regarding tenure and consider whether that work can translate into merit pay. Working for free on a new and time-consuming endeavor is daunting, regardless of the appeal. Happily, there are positive answers to this question. Some courses do ask for a small fee for participation, perhaps $50 or less. Another tactic that is growing in popularity is to allow people to sign up for the courses for free. But, if they want a certificate at the end of a class verifying participation and completion, they will need to pay a small fee, perhaps in the same dollar range. Because the enrollments can be massive, these minimal costs can work. If a professor has 100,000 people in his or her class, and this is not unusual, and then just 5% opt to pay for certificates, profit is still considerable.

Once that part of the puzzle was in place, the growing excitement in our meeting room was palpable. Even the most reluctant doubter—and that would probably be me—was leaning forward and sharing ideas for courses. After the meeting while walking back to our offices, my friends and I continued the discussion, and I heard myself say I wanted to be included in the first possible wave of courses. And guess what? It feels great to be this excited about something.


Our first step, suggested by Gerber, was to go online and take a look at Coursera and other platforms. That is exactly what I encourage interested readers of this column to do. You can easily do a simple search for just the term MOOC and get any number of helpful sites and articles. As is always the case with new technology, Wikipedia has a good start of an article, presented in layman’s terms. After reading that, you would be well-served to go to the Coursera site and look around. It is easy and intuitive to navigate. It offers many computer courses, which were the earliest rollouts, but also mathematics, education, business, and even poetry.

My choice was to follow a course recommended at our meeting, called Gamification. This class is offered by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. I confess, the idea of taking a course from such a famous institution had a certain cachet for me. Signup is free. You are not obligated to do a lick of work. Of course, if you don’t, you won’t learn anything, but you could thereby just look around.

After signing on, I decided I would listen and view one or two of the video lectures. Once I got into these, I realized I was learning a lot and that I wanted to continue. At this point, I have finished the first section of lectures. I have learned so much about gamification that I am considering using it as a topic for a future column as well as incorporating it into my present instruction. I feel like I am killing two birds with one stone by learning about the environment of MOOCs and gamification as well. By the end of the first several lectures, I was already on Facebook bragging about my new interests.


OK, you might say to yourself, “But what does this have to do with K–12 educators? My middle school students are not ready for university instruction and this seems to be, at least for now, more for adult and university learners.” First of all, that is not the case! The course I am “shadowing” has members of all ages, including high school and even middle school students. It seems that is not uncommon. According to Gerber, some MOOC followers are high school students who want to see what a college class is like! Thus, if you enroll in a class, do not be surprised to find youngsters as classmates.

Additionally, the MOOC trend is so popular and successful that it is sure to be extended to instruction for younger students. A thought that occurs to me is how beneficial it would have been for me when I was in high school to have access to a site that offered free tutoring in algebra and geometry. Math has never been my strong suit, and I would have benefited greatly from some review materials and extra explanations. Further, there are already entities out there that are offering MOOC-like instruction for younger students. One example is Kahn Academy, which describes itself as follows: “With a library of over 3,400 videos on everything from arithmetic to physics, finance, and history and hundreds of skills to practice, we’re on a mission to help you learn what you want, when you want, at your own pace.” Granted this environment may be considered an example of webinars rather than MOOCs, but to split hairs about definition is to miss the point that students are already signing on for online free instruction. Clearly there is a market for such instruction for high school students and even below, and educators should be aware of this trend and devote some time to thinking about how to offer it in the future.

I would be remiss if I failed to discuss the other big players in the online instruction sandbox. These include TED, YouTube, and TeacherTube. These seem to me to exemplify resources for webinars. They are also free and reach unlimited numbers of users. The resources on these sites tend to be freestanding videos without the other trappings of a more fully developed course, or a MOOC. What they do offer is a broad range of instructional webcasts on an impressive array of topics. Any educator looking to the future should become familiar with these well-established sites and consider how to use them with students.

MOOCs vs. Webinars

Going back a little to my earlier comment about MOOCs being webinars on steroids, I want to point out the differences I see between the two environments. Like MOOCs, most webinars are free, though some of both may charge nominal fees. Webinars tend to be one-time visits and experiences, where participants go to the site and listen to/view a presentation, with a possible added value of comments or discussion. MOOCs, by contrast, offer many additional elements of online courseware: assignments, quizzes, discussion boards, etc. Discussion forums for my course have participants from all over the world. My Coursera professor, Kevin Werbach, contacts students frequently by email with updates, tips, and information as well as communicating via the class site.

In this respect, I find a MOOC to more closely resemble a CMS (course management system) such as Blackboard or Moodle. An exciting benefit of participating in a MOOC is the chance to network with other smart and ambitious learners all over the world, ranging in age from teens to retirees. There is something very satisfying about communicating with folks with whom you share an interest, with these “friends” being from all walks of life all across the globe.

An interesting side product of Coursera’s offerings has been the formation of subgroups within the huge classes where people gather together of their own accord to share their learning and take studies a bit farther. In some cases, these groups are geo-graphical. Thus, you might have a subgroup in London, Hong Kong, or Buenos Aires, Argentina, meeting at a local coffee shop to exchange ideas and discuss course content. Other times they are by interest rather than location, with groups agreeing they want to explore even more specific content. These group members could be scattered across the globe, so “meetings” would have to be virtual.

MOOCs have the added benefit of offering certificates that participants can use to document professional development or for other uses. Job seekers can add these certificates to curriculum vitae in the hopes of showing growth and initiative. Another characteristic of some courses is that the delivering institution may group courses together in bundles, with completion of several and payment of a small fee earning the student an additional document called a badge. Thus, if I were studying Web 2.0 applications for educators, completing one course could yield a certificate and completing three or four related courses could earn me a badge. And yes, in some cases, such classes will likely go toward earning course credits in colleges and universities.

I encourage all readers to inform yourselves by at least taking a close look at Coursera and other MOOCs and also at webinars for students if you are not already familiar with them. This is especially useful in view of the draconian filtering in far too many schools. Taking a MOOC at home could allow students in heavily filtered schools to learn with the freedom to access any and all pertinent websites. What you will find when you look around Coursera is that your students, or at least their counterparts, are already there. Many of us are late to the party, though, of course, many more educators are clueless about webinars, much less MOOCs. Now is a great time to inform ourselves!

My sense is that I am getting in on the ground floor of something very big and important. Whether your exploration leads to creating content on your part; recommending courses to colleagues, parents, and even students; or to just learning more about this exciting trend by lurking, I think knowing about MOOCs, webinars, and other iterations of free online courses of study is important for all educators. I have already shared with colleagues via Facebook and doctoral students, and everyone has reacted with great interest and excitement. Given the breakneck speed with which new apps and instructional tools pop up online these days, I think such universal interest attests to the high potential value of MOOCs and their ilk.

So happy exploring, but be careful! You may end up like me, moving from slacker to worker bee in a very short time frame.


Contact Mary Ann at

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