Harnessing the power of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC)

Harnessing the power of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC)

A faculty panel, brought together by the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning (VPOL) and the Graduate School of Education (GSE), discussed “Research Opportunities in Online and Blended Learning” on May 22 in CERAS Learning Hall.

The panel, Keith Devlin, Scott Klemmer, and Dan Boneh, entered into several lively discussions about the opportunities and challenges they have faced while teaching their MOOCs (offered through Coursera). This event filled up CERAS Learning Hall and engaged the audience in discussions about strategies for overcoming some of the biggest hurdles associated with online courses.

The Panel

Keith Devlin, co-founder and Executive Director of the Stanford's H-STAR institute, co-founder of the Stanford Media X research network, and Senior Researcher at CSLI, teaches a“Introduction to Mathematical Thinking” MOOC.

Keith, ‘The Math Guy’ on NPR, talked about how his media experience has helped him with his MOOC in Wednesday’s panel, saying, “we think of MOOCs as being thousands of students, they’re not, they’re one student… The trick to make it work is to think you are talking to one person because it’s one person in front of a screen… People bond when there’s one-on-one.”

Scott Klemmer, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Stanford, teaches a “Human-Computer Interaction” MOOC.

Scott created a peer- and self- assessment methodology for learning creative skills online. Scott’s methodology is being used across a wide range of courses for this generation of MOOCs.

Dan Boneh, Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at Stanford, teaches MOOCs on “Computer Security”, “Cryptography I” and “Cryptography II.”

Dan addressed the importance of flexibility in online teaching during the faculty panel. For example, Hollywood has created a false image of what cryptography actually is and as a result, many students are interested in the topic but not adequately prepared to take the course. To adjust, Dan has re-recorded many of his lectures to ensure that the material in each is self-contained, a goal he now strives for in all of his lectures.

Opportunities unique to MOOCs

MOOCs provide a great opportunity for the education community to study the process of human learning. MOOCs are massive open online courses, which means they provide massive amounts of new data generated in online and blended learning platforms. MOOCs provide, as Scott put it, a “teachable moment for teachers”; many teachers have their own folk wisdom, and now is the time to test it.

One aspect of MOOCs that is being studied is assessment. The assessment of student work for online courses is a challenge, as one professor cannot possibly assess all of the students in a MOOC. However, this has introduced an interesting opportunity to study alternative methods of peer and self- assessment and contribute further to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning(SoTL).

One of the assessment methodologies used for MOOCs requires that every student evaluate five other students’ assignments and the aggregate of the scores and comments is then used for assessment purposes. The accuracy of this method is tested with control assignments that have already been graded. You can learn more about this assessment methodology from Scott’s webpage.

Another interesting aspect of online learning is that the solutions for most assignments are available online. How to do you prevent students from cheating? Well quite simply, you don’t. As Dan said, “if you’re cheating, you’re only cheating yourself; you won’t learn anything.”

Although much of the programming codes and mathematical proofs are available publicly, according to the panel, it seems that most students do not use these solutions beyond the purposes of checking their answers or getting past a particular tough spot. Keith remarked that this is evident from the online forums where most of his students engage in discussions and help each other through the problem sets.


One of the biggest challenges with MOOCs is maintaining fresh lecture content. Dan brought up this issue, which is particularly important for his field of computer security where every year about 30% of the material is new. Creating online classes is incredibly time consuming to begin with, and when the material is constantly changing, maintaining up-to-date classes becomes a lot of work as well.

How do we motivate faculty to update material and re-record lectures (or portions of lectures) as necessary, especially in fast-moving fields? This is an important question that needs to be addressed in order to ensure the success of MOOCs.

Have you had any experiences with online learning? If so, please share your stories below. Regardless of experience, questions and comments are always welcome. 

Mandy McLean is a graduate student in Environmental Earth System Science.


The video of Keith, Scott, and Dan's discussion on online learning is now available on edstream, check it out! http://edstream.stanford.edu/Video/Play/f5b05ce9cd0942adbea676dfc0ad44b81d

For additional coverage, see today’s Stanford Report article by R. F. MacKay: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2013/may/online-teaching-forum-053113.html

On YouTube, about 12 minutes: http://youtu.be/20XYA-T2qms