Luminaria: Rise of the MOOC

by on November 19, 2013 in Luminaria with No Comments »

(To view a PDF of the print copy, click here)


  • Welcome Letter from Dwight Hodgson
  • I Took A MOOC
  • Interview: MCNY President Vinton Thompson
  • Learning To Learn
  • MOOCs At MCNY?
  • Low MOOC Completion Rates
  • A Brief Tour of MOOC Providers
  • MOOCs And Math
  • LEC Students on MOOCs
MOOC cover
Welcome Letter from Dwight Hodgson

As the new Coordinator of the Learning Enhancement Center (LEC) and Mentor & Leadership Development Program (MLDP), I am excited to welcome you to another edition of Luminaria. This edition seeks to unfold the MOOC phenomenon. Recently, I have found myself thinking about my past professional experiences in non-conventional environments, which have given me an array of perspectives on education and learning. As the Education Center Coordinator for an adult basic education center, I analyzed issues ranging from the residual effects of a flawed K-12 system to the impositions of family life on the adult learner. As the Coordinator of a CUNY access program charged with getting young minorities involved in biomedical research and the world of STEM, I worked with students at the top of their undergraduate classes—students who didn’t need remedial intervention but who needed to be introduced to, and guided through, research opportunities, internships, and summer programs. And as Associate Director of Diversity and Inclusion at a premier city high school, I promoted diversity within an intelligent and articulate but, from the perch of interpersonal engagement, socially and culturally uninformed student body.

In each of these situations—and in many more like them—MOOCs have the potential to fill an education gap by giving students the time and space to step in and out of the classroom experience without interrupting their work flow. Having seen early college students selflessly offer up their naivety in exchange for an introduction to different cultures, I imagine students will bring that same innocence and yearning to the global, virtual MOOC classroom. I like to think that, in the same ways my former students strung their life experiences outside the classroom into an applicable learning device when they worked with their tutors, students enrolled in MOOCs will use their experience to enhance the experience for all. And I also believe that the communal MOOC environment will foster an opportunity for students to chime in on topics they never imagined they could have anything of substance to offer.

I am not concerned, and do not think, that MOOCs will replace the traditional classroom. More likely, they will supplement the brick-and-mortar education system richly and robustly . . . with many hiccups along the way. And that brings me full circle, to my role with the LEC and MLDP here at MCNY. As online classes and MOOCs continue to expand throughout higher education, support services—where confused and introspective students converse with real, live human tutors and mentors—will become all the more vital. As you survey the perspectives of this issue, I hope you take a moment to consider how the digital MOOC model might add to the analog nature of your education and your life. Happy reading.


Polly Bresnick and Anthony Harrison (MBA, 2014) review the structure of his case study.


By Polly Bresnick, LEC Writing Specialist

Why take a MOOC?

I have to admit, I love being in a classroom. I enjoy trudging or skipping to class under an umbrella or behind sunglasses. There’s nothing quite like the tangy stench of white board marker or the sharp smell of chalk and the gleam of ideas filling a once-empty board—learning takes hold of the space, and the world outside the classroom melts away. I had never taken an online course before, and, though I feared I would miss the inimitable experience of classroom learning, I was excited to join the worldwide movement of students enrolling in Massive Open Online Courses. I was intrigued to try my hand at learning in this new “classroom” in which the student is simultaneously alone and in the company of thousands.

Choosing The Coursemooc

Subject Matter

I chose a course called “Foundations of Teaching for Learning” because I knew it would apply directly to my work at the LEC and other teaching jobs. There were other interesting course offerings (literature, philosophy), but I suspected it would be difficult to stay motivated in them, as I know I learn certain subjects best in the company of others in discussion-based seminars in “brick and mortar” classroom environments. This course was described as an overview of basic, student-centered teaching practices, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to review what I already knew, engage with teaching as I was practicing it day-to-day, deepen my understanding of new research in my field, and expand my set of skills and resources.

Time Commitment

The course description predicted that this course would require 4-6 hours each of the four weeks. This seemed manageable to me. (I ended up spending a bit more time on weeks that included an essay assignment.)

First Impressions

The class “went live” on a specific date, and I logged in as soon as I had a free moment. I was “greeted” by a welcome statement, and it was initially a little uncomfortable to realize that I was reading it, rather than actually being welcomed by a person/teacher. (There I found the first of a surprising bounty of typos in the regular written correspondence from course administrators.) I felt excited to start, and I took an optional “getting to know you” survey. I imagine the survey is a way to help the course designers understand their audience/student population. My excitement around this reminded me of how thrilling it was to take those quizzes in Seventeen magazine to find out what your “fashion personality” was. Who doesn’t love being asked about oneself and filling in little bubbles to answer? My first interactions with my MOOC were not so different from early-internet quizzes (“Take this quiz to find out your animal spirit —CLICK HERE!”). Most of the questions on the survey were straightforward (“What is your level of education?”), and the final question asked me to identify my gender! Interesting!

The welcome email also encouraged me to poke around the course site. I am easily intimidated by technology, but the course design seemed sensitive to that, and I found the “base site” quite user-friendly. It was like a web-based syllabus/course schedule, with hyperlinks on a sidebar leading to the course materials. The page for each week contained four video lectures available to click on and view as many times as you’d like, with the ability to pause, rewind, and fast-forward. Each week’s course material page also included suggested activities to enhance learning, and some of the practices were interspersed between the video lectures—short videos of teachers in action or speaking about their practice, worksheets to use for evaluating oneself or one’s students, and additional reading material. I would take a multiple choice, electronic quiz, accessible at the bottom of each week’s course materials page. The quizzes “went live” at the end of each week, and I would submit them electronically by the middle of the following week. I would complete two essay assignments, and submit them electronically for peer-assessment, a process I had not heard of. As part of the peer-assessment system, I would evaluate the completed essays of two fellow students based on a common assessment rubric.

Without an essay assignment, suggested activity, or a video lecture to watch, I was impatient to start, so I went to the forum, hesitantly, to check out what was going on there. The first post I read started with: “Hello everyone, My name is Y____ and I live in India. I have got a degree in Electronics and Communication Engineering and an M.A. in English Literature.” India! There was also a student in Guyana, and one from Burma! The Philippines, Mexico . . . There seemed to be a lot of ESL-focused teachers in the group.

Finally, the first lecture was available to view. It was a clear, thorough introduction to what the course would cover and how to use the technical aspects of the course. In order to ensure fairness, an introductory email stated, all students participating must agree to abide by an academic honesty code of conduct. I was delighted to agree to this and eager get going with the course!

What Made It Great


The week-long modules were broken into 10- to 15-minute video lectures, which I could easily make time for throughout the week. I wore headphones and took notes while watching the lecture videos, to help me focus and concentrate. If I missed any information, I appreciated having the option to “rewind” and listen again. If I wanted to spend more time looking at an image the professor showed on screen, I could pause the video for as long as necessary. And, of course, if I was interested in reviewing any of the material covered in previous video lectures, I could access them any time.

The quizzes at the end of each week were challenging! After struggling through the first one, I made a point to review my notes and the course material from each week before taking the quiz.

The two short essays offered another valuable opportunity to review my notes, synthesize my reactions to the information from the lectures, and articulate how I planned to apply what I was learning. Two other students taking the course “peer-assessed” my essays and I “self-assessed” my own essay! I thought this form of assessment was a truly innovative way to offer feedback to thousands of students. It was an interesting challenge to evaluate myself honestly—a valuable lesson in personal accountability and independent learning.


Because the subject matter related to my work, I could directly apply what I was learning as I was learning it. This gave me the self-motivation necessary for an online learning situation in which there wasn’t a “live” teacher taking attendance and holding me, the student, accountable. I approached the course with the goal of professional development. The information I absorbed through taking this course significantly added to my “bag of tools,” and it deepened my intellectual engagement with my work.

What Could Be Improved


I know it was an introductory course, but some of the information felt too basic and, at times, gratuitous. The final week’s video lectures, “A World of Change,” “Outside of School,” “Professional Development,” and “Questions of Professionalism,” for example, felt drawn-out and were far less practically applicable than the earlier lectures. The lectures in week two, for example, “Thinking About Thinking” and “Teaching for Learning,” were particularly interesting and useful to me, as they deepened my pedagogical approach to engaging students with specific metacognition practices (a scholarly term for “thinking about thinking”). I had difficulty self-motivating and engaging with the course during this last week. I think the information presented in the final week of the course could have been condensed into one lecture or left out.

Final Thoughts

The video lectures and announcement emails often urged students to engage with the “forums.” When I first started the course, I peeked briefly at the forums. They were always brimming with hundreds of entries posted by enthusiastic students from all over the globe. I was mentally overwhelmed and exhausted after spending about three minutes scrolling through, and the experience discouraged me from looking at the forums again. I suppose it might have been interesting to discuss the course material with my fellow students—to have, for example, a “dialogue” of my experience incorporating the practices suggested in the video lectures—but I didn’t feel like I had time to engage in this way, and besides, I was able to share and discuss what I was learning with my friends and colleagues—far preferable to “e-discussion,” even if it’s multi-perspective, international, fellow student/fellow teacher “e-discussion.” Nonetheless, I value the experience of taking this course. I certainly plan to take more MOOCs in the future to continue flexing my self-directed learning muscles and adding to my professional skill-set. I do think I’ll stick with professional development MOOCs on subjects I can discuss and activate with real people in the real world. In fact, I’ve signed up for another MOOC on a specific ESL teaching approach. It starts later this month. Even though online learning can’t quite replicate classroom learning, it appears I’ve caught the MOOC bug.

Interview: MCNY President Vinton Thompson

By Nathan Schiller, LEC Writing Specialist

MCNY President Vinton Thompson

MCNY President Vinton Thompson

MCNY President Vinton Thompson did not go to college to become a college president. He studied biology at Harvard in the late ’60s, writing his senior thesis under the late Stephen Jay Gould, the renown evolutionary biologist, and then pursued a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago, where he carried out investigations in experimental fruit fly population genetics. In 1980, he was hired as a full-time Assistant Professor of Biology at Roosevelt University, in Chicago, an urban university serving a largely adult, commuter student body. At Roosevelt, he took on administrative roles, eventually becoming Provost, and helped grow the university’s downtown campus. In 2004, he was named Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Kean University, in Union, New Jersey, where he oversaw the revitalization of faculty scholarship and the development of many new programs, including the university’s first doctoral programs. Four years later, in 2008, he became President of MCNY. His work here has involved stabilizing enrollment, increasing the enrollment of new students, leading the college through a successful regional reaccreditation visit, and extending the campus to the Bronx. In this interview, he talks about the history of distance learning, online classes, MOOCs, and the changing nature of higher education in America.


Can you talk about the history of distance learning?

Historically, distance education, particularly by the federal government, has been viewed with some suspicion. People have always treated correspondence schools like they were vocational things not of very high quality. I think people tended to look at distance education that way. And there’s still absolute schizophrenia of the federal government’s approach to this. On the one hand, the federal government would like people to do lots of online education to reduce costs. On the other hand, it’s extremely suspicious about whether the quality of the program is good, and whether we’re really verifying that the person who says they’re out there at the other end of the connection is the person they say they are. These are not unreasonable concerns.

We’ve democratized, fantastically, higher education: if you go back to the period before the Second World War, fewer than ten percent of people went to college, and barely ten percent of people graduated from high school. We’re now in the situation where something like 70 percent of people go on to higher education. We’ve gotten high school graduation rates up, and high school dropout rates aren’t nearly as bad as they used to be, and this is true not only for white students but for black and Latino students. We said education is important, and people have pretty much taken that to heart. The issue is, now, that a lot of people aren’t getting through college. That’s especially true of people who come from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds. In a certain respect we’ve solved the problem of access. Now there’s great concern that we haven’t solved the problem of success and completion. And there’s angst over the question of whether through this process we’ve diluted the nature of college degrees. And so this whole issue of MOOCS and online education plays out in that context.

What do you think colleges most fear about online education?

There is a good bit of concern, on our own board and nationally, that the net consequence of moving toward a lot of online instruction, in which more initiative is put in the hands of students, may advantage the already-advantaged and disadvantage the already-disadvantaged, and lead to a brutally two-tier system of education in which an elite handful of students study in a more traditional mode at residential colleges with live professors, and everybody else takes online course with anonymous people somewhere who may not be real professors in the traditional sense. I think there’s probably a danger of things moving in that direction.

When was the first time you encountered online distance learning?

In my last three years at Roosevelt University in Chicago, 2000-2003, I was Provost and Academic Vice President and oversaw all the academics at the university. We had an early and active online program in which we put a couple of degrees at the master’s level entirely online. It was through interacting with the dean of the college of continuing education, who oversaw this effort, and the person working immediately under her, that I first really got lessons in understanding what online courses were, and how they might function, and some of the ins and outs of putting them together.

How did the students respond?

We marketed those programs essentially as separate programs; they were not closely integrated. So students came specifically because they wanted to take a fully online degree program, and we enrolled people in places like Poland. The people in the program were positive, because that’s what they were looking for. There wasn’t this issue we face now of blended classes, where you have a population that is, in many cases, involuntarily exposed to distance learning.

Do you have a similar vision for distance learning at MCNY?

When I got here [five years ago], there had been a lot of tentative efforts at instituting distance learning opportunities. At that point, we had achieved some fully online courses. We had not achieved any encompassing strategy for distance education. I thought it was important that we do so, and when we did our 2009-2014 Strategic Plan, we incorporated a number of goals related to distance education, which probably the most encompassing was a goal of achieving initially 20 percent—we’ve now modified that to 20-30 percent—of content in every program through online delivery, either through pure online courses or through blended courses, recognizing that the circumstances in different programs might lead to different approaches.

What are the reasons for doing that?

There are a variety of reasons. One—and I think this is the single most important one in this circumstance—is to give flexibility in the schedules of individual students. We serve adult students as our primary market. One of the major characteristics of adult students is that they’re balancing a number of things in their lives, and typically school is their third priority, after their family and their job. The nature of our education, where we encourage people to study full-time while they often work full-time and have significant family responsibilities, leads to extremely full schedules. We had talked loosely in the past about offering flexibility to our students, and what we’ve really offered is convenience in the scheduling, in the sense that we offer classes in the evenings and on the weekends. But actual school schedules are inflexible—you come when we schedule classes, and there’s not much choice in those schedules, because people go through a fixed program. One way we could introduce flexibility in that structure is to give students a choice about when they study, through distance learning, so that they can take the 20 to 30 percent of their course work through distance learning at times that suit their complicated schedules. And that should both make life easier for our students individually and make our programs more attractive for students. The option of working full-time while going to school full-time is a very attractive thing; it’s one of the main reasons students come here. But we have to find realistic ways for people to actually do that.

Another major reason for introducing distance learning is that you can do things in a distance learning mode that you can’t do in traditional, conventional classes pedagogically. At this point in history, it would be utterly unconscionable to graduate students who have no experience working in an online environment. Almost anyone, right now, who does any job that’s not manual labor—and most of our student graduates are not going to be doing manual labor—does a lot of work, if not all, in an online environment. There’s a major practical learning experience involved in working in depth in an online environment. You learn that by doing it, and you do it in part by working in these courses.

And the third consideration—and this is also important institutionally—is that if we administer online learning well, it should reduce the pressure on our classroom space. For instance, right now we tend to be chockfull of students Monday through Thursday evenings. Our classrooms are relatively unoccupied during the day. They’re fairly well occupied on Saturday, but not as well as they could be. It’s very expensive, particularly in New York City, to rent space to accommodate peak demand. To the degree that we can reduce pressure on classroom space by administratively well-chosen schedules for distance learning opportunities, we can serve more students for less facilities costs. In the long run, that puts less pressure on tuition, which should enable us to lower costs for students.

Another consideration—and it’s a significant one, though it wasn’t the driving force—is that this will enable us this coming January to move to a 14-week academic schedule. We presently run three full 15-week semesters a year. I’m not sure I know any non-profit four-year school that does that; typically, what happens is that summer sessions don’t offer either a full schedule or don’t last 15 weeks. A 15-week schedule poses difficulties for students and staff, because there’s not a lot of down time. With a 14-week schedule we will be able to start a week later in January, which will give a longer holiday break. It will give more time for people to get grades in and processed; from the point of view of recruiting, it will give more time to enroll new students without a rush in the beginning of January. We’ll also be able to increase substantially the summer break, which our faculty are really looking forward to. And, there’ll be longer breaks in the summer and winter for students. It would not be possible to run a 14-week schedule without the incorporation of distance learning.

Do you ever see MCNY offering a MOOC as an elective or transfer credit?

I anticipate that, going forward, we will see one of two things happen. First, we will see people bringing, for credit, on transcripts, as transfer students, courses that they’ve taken in MOOC form. My guess is that we will accept those courses, like we accept other transfer courses, once they’re on the transcript. There’s already a New York non-profit institution that does a lot of distance education itself and is making a specialty validating MOOC courses—Excelsior College, in Albany.

Second, people will come to us with MOOCs that have not been transcripted somewhere else. We will eventually have to have some policy on that. My guess is that our policy will be to follow the guidelines of recognized national organizations. We already give credit for certain types of military experience, and there are guidelines for doing that, published by the American Council for Education.  We adhere to those guidelines; it’s one of the ways we’re a veteran-friendly school. The American Council for Education is also working on mechanisms to give credits for MOOCs, and should they do so, I think it would be very likely that we will accept those courses in one form or another. In that sense, MOOCs pose a challenge that isn’t all that fundamentally different from students bringing all external credit. You often have situations where the transfer credits don’t directly correspond to any particular course that you give in your institution, so you give credit and make informed decision about what substitutes for what in your own curriculum.

Do you think there is chance that the MOOC will be remembered as a “fad”?

I think that it’s not just a passing fad. But I think the nature of MOOCs is going to transform. There are hopes that people can find the mechanisms to take online courses and perfect the pedagogy in such a way that they’re not only inexpensive or free but very effective and, particularly in situations where students need remediation. Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation, which are the big private funders of higher education initiatives and innovations in the United States, are both putting money into this. Whether it’ll be successful or not, I don’t know. My own intuition tells me that in situations where students need a helping hand, human interaction is an important component. And I am skeptical that we’re going to solve this whole issue of cost, in conjunction with access, through online education.

However, it also seems to me intuitively that online opportunities, particularly in things like mathematics, combined with the support of live, empathetic instructors, may be, in the long run, more effective than what we do now, particularly for students who are struggling. And there, I suspect—because I think a lot of money is going to be thrown at this sector—within a few years we’re going to end up with some really good online tools. I also see a world in which people are conducting more and more of their lives through the Internet. People will come to expect to be able to do a lot of their school work and interactions through the Internet, and this will inevitably have to translate in one way or another to pedagogical forms that respect that. Distance education as it exists now is the harbinger of that. What this is going to mean overall for colleges, I don’t know.

It seems like, at their core, online classes and MOOCs are attempts to address growing needs/issues in higher education.

Society, on a per-capita basis, isn’t willing to put the investment into individual college students that we did in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, when a much smaller portion of the population went to college. So now, what do you do? One of the answers for the last ten, twenty years in particular is, “Well, we’re going to solve that problem by making loans easily available, and that’s okay because all you folks who run colleges have convinced us that a college education has such wonderful effects on peoples’ earning potential, and therefore college is primarily a private good, and for people who are getting this private advantage, it’s reasonable that they pay for the good, and we’ll front the money, and then they can pay it off later.” But people are now very concerned about whether the ratio of debt to return, economic and otherwise, is sustainable. And, again, one answer to that is to say, “Okay, we’ll just find cheaper ways to do higher education, and then people won’t have to go into so much debt to achieve it.” MOOCs, I think, are so attractive in many corridors because they seem to offer a glimmer of possibility for doing that, in, what ostensibly, on the face of it, is a highly democratized environment. What could be more democratized than [anyone] being able to take a course at Stanford?

Learning To Learn

By Parker Pracjek, Director of Academic Support

Skeptics and proponents alike typically love to predict the fate of emerging innovations. For those meant to succeed and become integrated into the fabric of a market or culture, there are often a host of lessons learned and interesting standards that take shape. And so it has been with the MOOC.

Though only a few years into the MOOC experiment, nationally, it seems, we are moving beyond a honeymoon stage and into a serious reckoning of what this phenomenon means for higher ed, for MCNY, and for individual learners. Already the radical MOOC has entered adolescence, growing pains and all, and its adult features are starting to take form. Some of these features include 1) democratization of access to learning from field experts, 2) technology and instructional design as co-facilitators of learning, and 3) a shift from instructor/institution-directed instruction to student-directed. The emergence of these features is good news for many, but particularly for adult learners.

In looking to answer my curiosities about the relevance of MOOCs for the MCNY community, I returned to readings about adult learners and andragogy. Andragogy, a system of ideas, concepts and approaches to adult learning, was first popularized by educator Malcolm Knowles in 1968. This model sees instructors more as facilitators helping learners maximize their learning abilities. This approach is in sharp contrast to teacher-directed instruction, which can be said to promote dependence and obedience (Knowles, 1984). What Knowles and others observed, and what many MCNY students would consider self-evident, is that “people who take initiative in educational activities seem to learn more and learn things better than [. . .] more passive individuals (Hiemstra & Sisco, 1990). Indeed, MCNY’s Purpose-Centered Education asks that the learner be a student of their own learning through regular, intensive shaping and application of knowledge in the field. So at its core, MCNY seems to capture the importance of individual learning continuing long after the formal learning activity is completed in class. But is this enough to satisfy the needs of today’s adult learner?

Enter MOOC stage left. Suddenly, much of what we know and revere about the traditional classroom is called into question. With the appearance of this MOOC on our stage, certain things many of us have long taken for granted can be seen in high relief: the traditional instructor/institution has full responsibility for making decisions not only about what will be learned, but how and when it will be learned and if it has been learned.

In many ways, the traditional classroom structure is alienated from the way we gather and process information in our extracurricular lives. As we navigate a city like NYC, a multitude of adult demands and curiosities sparked by access to new troves of information and media, we are naturally engaging in the very activities required of learners in any MOOC scenario: we are making connections with “various ‘nodes’ of content [. . .] on the Web, aggregating content and creating knowledge” (Morrison, 2013).

Certainly adult learners—to varying degrees and depending on the course content—have the ability, need and desire to take responsibility for their learning (Knowles, 1980).  Theories of adult cognitive development tend to agree that adults are motivated to learn by a sincere desire to solve immediate problems in their lives and that mature adults cherish independence and are responsible for their own actions (Hiemstra & Sisco, 1990). In the MOOC model, and more than in classic distance learning, the learner is necessarily an empowered driver of his or her learning and an active participant in the assessment of knowledge.

At every turn, the LEC and the Office of Academic Support promote independent, lifelong learning. Self-directed learning skills set all of us up to be adaptive, inquisitive and connected in a world in which rapid change seems to be the only stable characteristic (Knowles, 1975). Thankfully, the MOOC has lasted long enough to impact how we think about our learning and, quite possibly, how we can learn without being taught.


Hiemstra, Roger. (n.d.). “Moving from pedagogy to andragogy,” Adapted and Updated from Hiemstra, R., & Sisco, B. (1990). Individualizing instruction. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved from

Knowles, M. (1980). Modern practice of adult education: from pedagogy to andragogy. Revised and updated. New York: Cambridge.

Morrison, D. (2013, February 5). The MOOC honeymoon is over: three takeaways from the Coursera calamity [Blog]. Retrieved from:


By Claire Machia, E-Learning Coordinator

As MCNY continues to expand the number of courses offered as either hybrid or fully-online, we cannot ignore the MOOC craze that has shaken up higher education over the past year. Therefore, the Office of E-Learning continues to monitor the trend toward MOOCs offered through providers such as Coursera, edX, Udacity, Udemy, and others. In coordination with the faculty and academic administration, we also hope to develop a procedure for offering credit for MOOCs delivered by another provider or institution that fit the necessary criteria for our different programs.

New MOOCs in varying content areas are being rolled out all the time as this method of course delivery continues to develop and become more popular. I believe that eventually there will be MOOCs offered that can apply to all of the programs here at MCNY. Some day in the future, we would love for MCNY to offer its own MOOC through one of these providers. The Emergency and Disaster Management MPA program has considered the development of a MOOC in an effort to build on the momentum and global networks made during the SMARMIE Conference held at MCNY in March.

MOOCs are definitely here to stay, and the Office of E-Learning hopes to incorporate this type of learning environment for students here at the college in the near future. If you have taken a MOOC on your own, we would LOVE to hear your feedback on the experience. You can email to share.

Low MOOC Completion Rates

By Aleksandr Rusinov, LEC Math Specialist

Nowadays, MOOCs are getting a lot of positive attention in the mainstream media. One year ago, the New York Times published an article titled “The Year of the MOOC.” Clearly, MOOCs are part of the future of education. But before we praise them as the future, we should examine their alarmingly low completion rates in more depth.Alek MOOC graphic 1

MOOCs attract many participants for two main reasons: they are inherently “massive,” and traditionally they have not charged tuition fees. This has led to completion rates—typically defined as earning a certificate—hovering around 10 percent. In many cases, the statistics are worse (right). Last fall, for instance, of the 12,725 students enrolled in a MOOC called Bioelectricity, at Duke University, only 345 of them (2.7%) attempted the final exam.

To contextualize the low rates, let’s look at a  doctoral study titled “Deconstructing Disengagements: Analyzing Learner Subpopulations in Massive Open Online Courses.” By surveying three Stanford MOOCs—Computer Science 101 (high school), Algorithms: Design and Analysis (undergrad), Probabilistic Graphical Models (grad)—the study identified four types of participants: auditing learners, who watch video but take few quizzes or exams; completing learners, who view most lectures and take part in most assessments; disengaging learners, who take part only at the start; and sampling learners, who watch the lectures at various times. For each course, the study tracked the percentage of participants according to these populations (below). In all three classes, the highest percentages of participants were sampling learners, while only the high school class had greater than 8% of participants completing learners.Alek MOOC graphic 2

One reason for low completion rates may be that MOOC participants are often professionals with a college degree. MOOCs give these participants control over where, how, and with whom they learn, but the participants do not seem to take advantage. Another reason could involve the fact that about 3 in 4 MOOCs students are from outside the United States (below). It may be difficult for MOOC participants who do not speak English as their first language to stay with a course. A leading challenge for MOOC participants lies in overcoming the lack of social presence and the high level of autonomy. Without the ability to work alongside a teacher and fellow participants on problems and projects that involve collaborative explanations, MOOC participants may have less incentive to bother with courses.Alek MOOC graphic 3

We must also consider, though, that perhaps completion rates are not the most useful tool with which to measure MOOCs. While the traditional educational structure of the brick-and-mortar classroom renders completing a course and earning a degree vital for employment, the ultimate purpose of MOOCs may prove to be imparting information to as many participants as possible. But, at the same time, in January, Georgia Tech will offer its highly-ranked Master’s Degree in Computer Science entirely through MOOCs (and at a discount of $34,800). This ground-breaking move could be the first sign that education administrators view MOOCs on the same level as traditional classroom courses. We should pay attention to how many students enroll in the program—but we should be far more interested in how many complete it.

First Walk on the MOOC: A Brief Tour of MOOC Providers

By Yasmine Alwan, LEC Writing Specialist

For curious individuals interested in taking a live dive into a MOOC course, this article aims to offer a thumbnail view of four major MOOC providers:  Coursera, edEx, MIT Open Courseware and Udacity. I had not heard of MOOCs before our Luminaria issue, and I hope my first impressions will offer a starting place for your explorations of this new learning format. If you head out into MOOC territory, I’d like to know what you find.


Udacity has blossomed in the last two years, and its partnership to San Jose University shows its Silicon Valley affinities, that is, a diverse engagement with all things Internet. In terms of breadth of subject, Udacity courses focus on five areas, all somewhat technology-oriented: business, computer science, mathematics, design and science. Courses such “How to Build a Startup” or “Web Development—How to Build a Blog” could spark an MCNY student’s interest.

Like most MOOC providers, courses are free. If one wants to get credit or certification for job purposes, “modest fees” apply. All courses have open enrollment, and often have quizzes along what seems to be an adjustable timeline. Looking over the list of available courses, there appear to be 28 classes at the time of this writing. Courses are helpfully divided into beginning, intermediate and advanced levels. Courses are close-captioned in English, and can have subtitles in Spanish, Chinese, French, Portuguese, and even Latin! To help students transition into a new learning format, they often offer videos and self-assessments.


Among its 82 “starting soon” courses at the time of this writing, Coursera offers classes across a wider spectrum of subjects than Udacity. Coursera has a greater offering in the humanities, with classes such as “Modern and Contemporary Poetry” or “9/11 and Its Aftermath.” Stand out social services courses include “Saving Lives Millions at a Time: Global Disease Control Policies and Programs,” “Care of Elders with Alzheimer’s Disease” from The John Hopkins University, “Introduction to Sustainability,” “Disaster Preparedness,” or even “The History of Rock.”

Coursera currently has 433 courses listed, although it is unclear how many are currently available. Coursera attempts to stand apart from the herd pedagogically through interactive exercises and use of peer review for student work which could be useful particularly for humanities courses. In fact, it could be said that peer-to-peer feedback is one of the most beautiful possibilities in MOOCland; unlike classes bound by time and space, you have the chance to bounce ideas against others—literally—around the globe. Coursera boasts courses from universities such as Columbia, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Museum of Modern Art, Caltech, and the University of Pennsylvania. Having established relationships with global universities, Coursera also offers classes in Spanish, French, Arabic, Chinese, Italian and German.

The descriptions of courses are smoothly-packaged and more consumer accessible to this potential customer.  Is sum, my visit to Coursera stood out among providers. See Polly Bresnick’s article (Page 3) for an account of her experience taking a MOOC through Coursera.

MIT Open Courseware

In 2002, MIT Open Courseware began as an impressive not-for-profit initiative by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to place all undergraduate and graduate course material online for global accessibility across time and space. Currently, more than two thousand courses offer a range of materials, reading lists, lecture notes, and, in some cases, complete textbooks by MIT professors, a lure for this writer! Fewer courses are provided in a more structured format, with video lectures.

Courses are given in English, Chinese, Dutch, French, Hebrew, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, Thai, Turkish, and Vietnamese. Courses tend to be science-oriented, such as “Innovation and Commercialization,” “A Global History of Architecture: Part 1,” “Classical Mechanics, Introduction to Aerodynamics,” or “Flight Vehicle Aerodynamics,” “Introduction to Philosophy: God, Knowledge and Consciousness.”7IntriguingMOOCs

There is a different feel moving through the Open Courseware’s site, in part due to MITOC’s different purpose and history. Rather than a start-up channeling an innovative educational product, MITOC unfolded specifically as a university’s attempt to turn itself inside out as a public resource. I am struck by the generosity and boldness of this first move by a university so nationally and globally esteemed.


An offshoot of MIT Open Courseware, edEx is a joint effort of MIT and Harvard. Course subjects spanned the humanities, medicine, law, nutrition to name a few. My walk-through of the site yielded 51 new and current courses and 17 past courses. Courses that dovetail with LEC student interests include “Statistics,” “Descriptive Statistics,” “Introduction to Bioethics,” “Ideas of the Twentieth Century” or “Introduction to Global Sociology.”

The edEx user experience appears very smooth; they include a demo MOOC course, and a fairly similar set of supports that other sites offer; their meet-ups around the world seemed a stand-out feature.

I wish you a dynamic expedition into the thickets and wilds of a new learning form that is likely to innovate and proliferate even more than we can yet imagine.

MOOCS And Math

By Barrington Scott, LEC Math Specialist

Many of my favorite math courses—calculus, differential equations, linear algebra—are offered online, for free, for anyone in the world, and are taught by distinguished professors from elite universities like MIT and Harvard. I believe MOOC math courses are appropriate for enhancing learning across all levels, from basic skills to advanced disciplines. But many advanced math courses assume that a student has taken prerequisites, which many colleges, including MCNY, do not offer. MOOCs could efficiently tackle the prerequisite problem, though how well they will prove as a math teaching tool is unknown.

I find that students fear math in a way they do not fear writing. Writing is similar to speaking, something we do all the time. Math, however, is similar to little we do in our everyday lives, and it involves formulas and calculations many students find scary and confusing. To succeed in math, one must become fluent in a discipline before moving to a more complex one. Finance classes ask students to calculate the risk of an investment. But to do that, students need to know how to apply standard deviation, which means they have to take statistics—otherwise they must play catch-up. I see a lot of this at MCNY.

A classroom is an ideal place for math teaching. In math, students do best in participative learning environments, where they can speak out and share information. But instructors have a lot of information to get across in a class session, and this doesn’t always leave time for questions. Many math students need tutoring so that they can ask how to get from Point A to Point B at the moment an equation is being presented.

Many MCNY students, who balance school with jobs and families, don’t have the time for independent tutoring. Eventually, students most pressed for time will need to learn math online. MOOCs could prove a viable alternative to in-class instruction. Until the advent of the MOOC, many math professors taught online classes by Xeroxing textbook chapters and posting them online. This was not necessarily the instructors’ fault, as there had not been great formats to post lecture videos, but it made online math learning difficult. MOOCs are changing these online platforms by allowing professors to post videos of their lectures, where they patiently explain topics using whiteboards and additional graphics.

I am considering taking a Stanford MOOC called “Statistics in Medicine.” I’m excited to see how the instructors will use standard deviation, test hypotheses, and correlate variables. Without a doubt, I will rely on my statistics background for support.

LEC Students on MOOCs

Venita Rice: I’d rather sit face to face with the professor. If I need a question answered, I need it answered right away.

Clarita Liepolt: The right professor needs to manage the course, someone who motivates the discussions and is not a “Ghost.”

Huarquidia Dominguez: They seem like a great option for people who want to learn from home and feel comfortable with computers.

Tara Rowley: I work, and I’m always rushing to school, and the train is annoying.  With MOOCs, I could go home, take a shower, drink a cup of tea, and then go online and learn.

Ronald Knight: There are students who you don’t want to be in classroom with—they steer the professor away from the topics. This setup can be a waste of time. MOOCs can change that.

Seving Senol: I travel home to Turkey. With MOOCs, if I still want to attend my classes, I can. If my visa expires, I can take my classes. If I could meet with my professor over Skype, that would be great.

Dawn Mulcahy: They make you more accountable. I like that. I don’t like to be micromanaged: assignments or expectations can get miscommunicated, though webinars or voice chats diminish those instances.

Yenie Perez: As much as I try to run away from it, eventually everything is going to be online. I wouldn’t want to take an entire Master’s degree online. I need to be in class setting. MOOCs take discipline. You have so much freedom—you don’t have to go to class, no one takes attendance. But it brings spice to your learning to see teachers from Australia and England. The next generation, that’s what they’ll be doing in schools. It’s good and bad.

    Barrington Scott shows Maka Nadarovna Makharashvili (AS Business, 2014) how to calculate manufacturing costs.

Barrington Scott shows Maka Nadarovna Makharashvili (AS Business, 2014) how to calculate manufacturing costs.


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