MOOCs Still Making Progress


Nearly two years into my MOOC adventure, my enthusiasm for this learning technology hasn’t dampened in the slightest. Despite the fickle coverage of MOOCs in the press, with time I grow more - not less - excited about the changes they portend for higher education. I imagine we will look back on these early days of MOOC education and marvel at how far we’ve come.

Bill Aulet and Erdin Beshimov, of MITx’s popular Entrepreneurship 101 and 102 courses, agree with me.

I recently got the chance to speak with this dynamic duo, and I was pleased to find that they share my belief in MOOCs as a transformative technology. As Erdin Beshimov put it, “I’ve enjoyed the latest disenchantment with MOOCs quite a bit. It’s the best time to innovate.  And I’ve come to believe that MOOCs are actually far more transformative than we had imagined in the beginning.”  

Professor Aulet agrees.

“The people who don’t understand MOOCs are going to be left behind. It’s like when I first started in business, people said ‘I don’t need to do computers.’ Well think about it today. You cannot survive without using computers.”

One giant advance in the world of MOOCs was just announced last week. Starting next academic year, Arizona State University will now allow students to take their entire first year of university courses online via the MOOC platform edX. More on that in a minute. But there are other reasons to remain excited about MOOCs.


The four MOOC developments I’m most excited about


Online courses will become more interactive than IRL versions

One of the biggest complaints about MOOCs is that it is hard to pay attention and stay motivated in an online classroom. It’s too easy to try to multi-task; switch tabs on your browser, and within a few seconds you’re lost. But MOOCs are going to get better. Platforms like edX are logging millions of clicks to figure out what keeps students engaged and to develop new course content in accordance with those findings.

“It’s kind of like when movies first came out, they just made movies of plays,” Professor Aulet told me. “When MOOCs first came out they just took video of lectures. Now you’re starting to see the development of the tools, the assessment, and the exercises.”  

Online courses certainly have the potential to be just as engaging - if not more so - than their classroom-based counterparts. Professors at Minerva, a startup university in California, have access to tools for the online classroom that allow them to track student engagement, call on people at random, assign groups, and deliver pop quizzes to assess comprehension. Even though Minerva’s first crop of students is physically together on campus, the online environment actually enhances the learning that is taking place rather than being an impediment to it.

This is also the goal that MOOC creators are striving towards. Says Erdin Beshimov, “What I think about on a daily basis is, how do I make our MOOC better than Bill’s on-campus course? It’s not an easy goal by any stretch of the imagination, but that’s what I’m doing. And I’m not the only one. Give it some time, but this mindset will take MOOCs from their uncertain beginnings to a very prominent position in education.”


Post-payment models will increase access to credentials and mitigate risk

EdX and Arizona State’s partnership to deliver the first year of university education online at a much-reduced cost is a ground-breaking development. What I find most exciting and innovative about this partnership is the fact that students won’t pay tuition until and unless they are successful at completing the courses. Admissions won’t be required; the courses will be accessible to anyone.

This model is similar to the model Udacity used in its partnership with Georgia Tech - no admissions; pay for certification only if successful.

I expect we will see more educational institutions adopting models like these, where the education itself is free and accessible and students pay for credit or a credential only after succeeding in the program.


Better networking possibilities

Over the course of my studies, I’ve watched MOOC communities form and grow. The community around Entrepreneurship 101 and 102 is especially large and vibrant, with over 150,000 people having taken at least one of these courses. For Erdin Beshimov and Bill Aulet, the community element is one of the most exciting things about teaching a MOOC. They emphasized that this community could be an important resource for entrepreneurs seeking co-founders. “Our MOOCs comprise a community of 150,000 people from every country in the world,” Beshimov explains.  “This is just incredible. At some point, we’re going to become the biggest place to find future collaborators and co-founders.”

I can certainly attest to the power of MOOC communities for building startup ventures. My own network has expanded exponentially due to my public quest to replicate the MBA using MOOCs. To wit, I’ve pulled the majority of my startup team from among the ranks of people I’ve met through my courses.

I expect we’ll see even better networking possibilities emerge through MOOC-based communities. This is a goal I am working towards as a major component of the business I am launching.


MOOCs will be recognized as legitimate professional training

Much of the coverage of MOOCs has been about their potential effects on undergraduate education and college-age students - will universities will disappear or change? Can tuition fees and debt burdens can be lowered? Besides from lowering debt, MOOCs are poised to solve another problem in higher education - the mismatch between rapidly changing work requirements and an educational system that delivers most of one’s higher education in a lump before you’ve ever entered the workforce.

Luckily, this is a problem MOOCs are already capable of solving. I’ve used free online courses to shift my portfolio at work to be more private-sector oriented. My husband is taking courses to beef up his data analysis and program evaluation skills. Both of us already have master’s degrees, and both of us are finding MOOCs valuable on the job. I predict that before long, we will see more and more use of MOOCs as low-cost or free professional training.


Are you excited about MOOCs? Join the conversation! I’ll be on a Twitter chat with @MIT15390x on 29 April at 12 EST, and I’d love to see you there. Tweet with #MIT15390xChat.


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