What Makes a MOOC?

Three business professors discuss what they learned from teaching their first massive open online courses—and why they think MOOCs are here to stay.
What Makes a MOOC?

While many educators have been wondering whether massive open online courses represent revolution or ruin for higher education, a relatively small number of professors have been testing the format’s potential for teaching and learning. The first business professors began experimenting with MOOCs just over a year ago.

BizEd recently spoke to three professors who have delivered MOOCs through the Coursera platform. Hank Lucas, professor of information at the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland in College Park, taught his first MOOC, “Surviving Disruptive Technologies,” this past spring. Edward Hess is a professor of business administration and executive-in-residence at the Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He has taught two rounds of a MOOC called “Grow to Greatness: Smart Growth for Private Businesses,” based on his book by the same name. Finally, Christian Terwiesch is a professor of operations and information management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He has taught two Coursera offerings of “An Introduction to Operations Management.”

BizEd asked Hess, Lucas, and Terwiesch to share what they liked, what they learned, and why they think MOOCs have such tremendous potential for education.

What has been the biggest challenge of teaching a MOOC?

Lucas: I’ve taught a fully online course for our part-time MBA, for which I’ve created videos. But Coursera offers its own recommendations for producing online videos. It suggests making sure you’re doing other things while you’re talking, such as using a special table computer so you can annotate your slides—circle elements and underline words—as you record the lecture. I think that’s very effective. As a result of this, I re-recorded all my videos for my regular online course.

Terwiesch: In the classroom, you can think on the fly and make up your lecture as you go along, but that doesn’t work in a MOOC. This format forces you to think much more deeply about the topic, so you can teach it effectively in a series of brief ten-minute videos. That has been a very helpful exercise for me.

Have you had any bad experiences?

Hess: No, my MOOC has far exceeded my expectations. The quality and quantity of student engagement on the discussion forums, and the quality of their submitted work, has been in some cases as high as I’ve seen with my MBAs. In a single MOOC, I taught more people than Darden has graduated in its history.

Lucas: The most frustrating part was the tests, which were peer-graded. Once students submitted their papers, three or four of them would grade each other’s work according to a rubric I provided. Many emailed me about their concerns with the grading process. But I looked at some of the exams, and by and large the grading was good.

Terwiesch: I had a few students email me to ask if I could go over the material with them personally—I had 87,000 students, so email is not a good way of con-tact. But I actually had a very small fraction of students contact me directly. And many of them sent me wonderful messages to share how they used the tools they learned in class at work and to let me know how much more they understand. 

How do you manage your MOOC?

Hess: I use the case method, and it works. Could I replicate the same classroom discussion that happens in my physical classroom in my MOOC? No. But can I deliver high-engagement learning, promote critical thinking, and enable students to converse, debate, and learn from each other? Yes! In the discussion forums, students learned from each other and formed aff nity groups that lasted beyond the course.

Lucas: Each week, my assistant Danielle and I use Google Hangouts to invite up to nine people to join us for an online conversation about that week’s lecture. Each person appears in a window on the screen. Danielle monitors the discussion boards and sends me the email addresses of students who have been particularly active. I then invite those students to participate, and the entire class can watch the discussion. We post a Twitter hashtag, so the entire class can tweet comments and questions, which we monitor and respond to during the conversation. I record the hangout session, upload it to YouTube, and post an announcement about the video on Coursera’s website.

I know that sounds complicated, but it has really worked. For example, one week we compared the models of FedEx and UPS to the problems the U.S. Postal Service is facing. I asked how postal services in other countries were handling these problems, and we got a range of views, including comments from students in Germany and Australia.

Terwiesch: I have to give credit to the Coursera platform. Many questions that students would typically ask the professor are answered by the community. I oversee the discussion forums each week, and if there’s something the community can’t resolve, I intervene. But the community is remarkably responsive.

Also, I ask students to create projects based on the material that they completed in their workplaces and share their experiences. We had close to 2,000 projects in the first round of the course, and I think we’re going to get about 1,000 in the second. If we post those projects online, we will have created an amazing library of projects that document how people used operations management to change their businesses.

Many criticize MOOCs because of their high dropout rates. What do you say to that criticism?

Hess: I think too many people are focusing on the wrong numbers. The key questions are, how many students who attended the first class finish the course, and is that number meaningful to the school? [Of more than 31,000 students in Hess’ first class, 10,260 finished the course.]

Lucas: If we were offering MOOCs for credit, it would be a different story. But right now, students who came to even one of my lectures took something away from it, and I know that many mastered the material. For instance, I had just over 16,000 students enroll in my course. At one point, Coursera’s statistics showed that 8,000 were active. About 900 students took the midterm. How many years would it take for me to reach 900 students? Or talk to 8,000?

Terwiesch: Measuring graduation rates for students paying US$200,000 for their educations is important. But measuring completion rates when they can sign up for free? That’s an irrelevant number. We shouldn’t take a measure from the old industry and apply it to the new. [Of 87,000 students who initially enrolled in Terwiesch’s first class, 7,000 users were active in the discussion forums and took the final exam.]

What impact will MOOCs have on higher education?

Hess: I expect we’ll see more partnerships between four-year institutions and community colleges to bring more content to community colleges in a cost-efficient manner. One also could argue that the sec-tor most disrupted by MOOCs will be for-prof t education, which will be up against completely different competitors. Many business schools already use online learning combined with residencies in their executive MBA programs, so MOOCs most likely will drive improvements for those programs.

Lucas: Obviously, we can’t keep giving away our product, and Coursera is working on a revenue model. For instance, Coursera now offers certificates, where students can pay a fee to show they’ve completed the course, as well as a model in which it licenses a MOOC to a school for use in a course and pays a royalty to the university that created it.

I also think we’ll find ways for MOOCs to add value to the traditional classroom. So, say, five Nobel Prize-winning professors create MOOCs in economics. If a professor selects the parts of those MOOCs that are the most exciting, and brings those parts into class for discussion, that adds value. It would be rare that a professor could bring five Nobel-winning professors to class any other way.

Terwiesch: I think we’ll develop a model where students can take the course for free but pay for extra support, extra lectures, and test-taking monitoring if they’re taking the course for credit. In places such as Africa and Asia, this model can reach thousands and thousands of students who otherwise would not be able to attend school.

In the 1990s, I once had a conversation with Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com, and we wondered whether bookstores would die out one day. A couple of years later, we knew that was exactly what was happening, but no one was willing to admit it because it sounded too evil. As business professors, we see innovation happen in industries all the time. This time it’s happening in our own. I think we know exactly where this is heading, but we don’t want to say it right now. This is a disruptive technology, and some people are going to lose.

But when the automobile came around, we didn’t cry for the horse cart. If professors continue to rein-vent what they teach and stay experiential, there will always be work. It would be incredibly naive to believe that we can continue to do business as usual, as if MOOCs hadn’t come along. This is not a crazy trend that will stick around for a year and then go away. It’s here to stay.