Professors discuss future of Massive Open Online Courses


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Photo by Michelle Klejmont |

Photo Illustration | Rutgers is offering three online courses this year through Coursera, a Massive Open Online Course platform.


Massive Open Online Courses attract curious people who are looking for specific information on a given topic, said Richard Novak, vice president of the Division of Continuing Studies and Distance Learning at Rutgers. 

MOOCs are free online classes that offer university-level learning to anyone in any geographical location with Internet access. 

Though the courses were intended to reach massive global audiences, according to The New York Times, the average user is a young, white American male who has his bachelor’s degree and a full-time job. The courses have been largely unsuccessful.

Coursera, Udacity and edX remain the only large MOOC platforms, said Sesh Venugopal, director of Introductory Undergraduate Instruction in the Rutgers Department of Computer Science.

The Division of Continuing Studies enabled Rutgers to get into the MOOC world by funding the development and financially supporting the delivery of its first courses, Novak said.

Since joining Coursera, Rutgers has offered three MOOCs. The University plans to offer an additional six courses on topics related to global issues, depending on available funding. 

One benefit of MOOCs is that they reach a large number of people worldwide quickly, Novak said. This can also be seen as a negative because MOOCs are not like the typical online credit classes that Rutgers offers, which lead to a degree.

“Our online degree programs have very small classes, average size of 17 to 20 students,” Novak said. “There is a high level of interactivity with the professor in [these courses].”

In comparison, Rutgers’ first two MOOCs had 75,000 enrollments in total. There is still a high level of interactivity, but it is largely amongst peers instead of with instructors. 

Compared to such high enrollment rates, MOOC completion rates tend to be extremely low. Often, more than 90 percent of people who sign up for a MOOC do not finish, according to The Wall Street Journal. Venugopal said they have “really not been successful.”

“It’s one thing to have people sign up but a lot don’t stay all the way through,” Venugopal said. 

Novak warned that the completion rate of MOOCs could be misleading.

“It depends on how you count,” Novak said. “For instance, are you counting only students who go through all of the material but don’t take a quiz or only those who have done everything?”

The vast majority of those who enroll in MOOCs at Rutgers already have a college degree and are usually in their mid-20s of older, Novak said. Approximately 75 to 80 percent are from outside of the U.S., with heavy participation from those in China and India. 

Novak predicts that MOOCs will continue to be offered in the future but for a variety of purposes that they may not have been originally intended for.

MOOCs may be targeted specifically at global audiences, such as courses on global health, which are currently in the works at Rutgers. MOOCs could also be used for specific purposes, such as bundling courses together as a certificate for professional development. 

In order for an MOOC to offer course credit, there needs to be a measure that the MOOC is equivalent to what happens in the classroom, Venugopal said. But if it did meet these requirements, it would no longer be considered a MOOC. 

Almost no campuses offer MOOCs for credit to their own students, according to Inside Higher Ed’s website.

Venugopal does not think MOOCs will not work as a replacement for regular credit-earning courses because there is no motivation for a college student to stay all the way through it.

“The thing about MOOCs that caught my attention was that you could use videos to teach,” he said.

This kind of teaching cannot work by itself, he said. Students need at least some degree of hands-on classroom experience in order to fully succeed. 

The “flipped classroom model” gives students the best of both worlds. This teaching model requires students to watch a 10-minute lecture that the professor posts on YouTube prior to coming to class. This way, there is more time for hands-on exercises.

MOOCs are ideal for professionals and those who want to learn something that is not necessarily required. 

“If I want to take a course on Java programming, I could sign up — and if I drop out, so what?” Venugopal said. “I get what I need out of it, and then I’m done.”


Carley Ens

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