Nobel Prize Winner Robert Shiller talks about MOOCs

The MySlideRule Blog has an interesting interview with last year’s Economics Nobel Prize Winner Robert Shiller, where part of the time, they talked about MOOCs and the future of education

Considering that he loves to teach, and teaches a 300-person freshman class at Yale, and his Financial Markets online course had over 165,000 students registered, he should have a good understanding of the potential of MOOCs.

Here are a couple of excerpts from that interview:

How does teaching on Coursera compare with teaching on campus at Yale? Are online courses the future?

Technology changes society, but not always in the way people expect. The need for community and social connection is stronger than most technologists believe. In 1876, when the telephone was invented, people thought cities would disappear, but it didn’t happen.

The human mind requires a sense of relationship, and social connection. MOOCs do these things better than textbooks, but still have a long way to go. My Yale classes are big (the latest had over 300 students), so I don’t get to know most of the students. Yet, there is a sense of community. And that’s important.

Are you saying that the online course was less effective?

I’m saying that it’s not as easy to build deep connections in an online course. On Coursera, I held office hours and responded to questions. Yet, I found myself spending more time thinking about my 300 Yale students than my 165,000 Coursera students, because I saw my Yale students every week.

I felt guilty for paying less attention to the larger number of students, but I couldn’t help the deeper feelings I felt for my on-campus students.

So, does this mean that Schiller does not think that the “massively” part of “massively online open courses” is really going to work?

So what does this mean for the future of education?

Online classes are here to stay, but perhaps the right answer is ordinary-sized classes rather than the “massive” classes currently in prevalence. I suspect the future will involve smaller online class sizes, more interaction with faculty.

There is a large opportunity in making online classes resemble traditional education more closely. For instance, tools to create better relationships even at a distance, record of professors’ communication with each student so they can refresh their memories.

Read the full article

Behind Harvard’s explosion of online classes: a flurry of lights, camera, action – Metro – The Boston Globe

The Boston Globe has an interesting article on how Harvard is building a full-fledged production studio to create MOOCs


They were surrounded not by leather-bound volumes but by a multimillion-dollar production studio and no fewer than five bustling staff members adjusting cameras and microphones and ensuring the scholars made their points clearly.

The production values were taken at least as seriously as the scholarship. As the professors discussed the international impact of the ornate turn-of-the-century Singer sewing machine on display between them, the crew monitored three cameras and debated which lighting source would reflect off Gordon’s glasses or wash out Ulrich’s face.

When Gordon brushed his hand on his lapel, creating a tiny static blip, they filmed a second take. When Ulrich moved a book off the sewing machine’s oak table between takes, they put it back, then filmed her picking it up so the book would not magically disappear in the video.

Quietly, Harvard has built what amounts to an in-house production company to create massive open online courses, or MOOCs, high-end classes that some prestigious universities are offering for free to anyone in the world, generally without formal academic credit. Contrary to the popular image of online classes consisting largely of video from a camera planted at the back of the lecture hall, Harvard is increasingly using mini-documentaries, animation, and interactive software tools to offer a far richer product.

This is a fairly serious undertaking, with a serious budget, and appropriate professionals being hired:

The endeavor, which is called HarvardX and celebrates its second birthday this month, has two video studios, more than 30 employees, and many freelancers — an astonishing constellation of producers, editors, videographers, composers, animators, typographers, and even a performance coach to help professors get comfortable in front of a camera.

HarvardX has made about 30 classes and has some 60 more in the works.

Read the full article for a lot of details, including dissenting opinions, and other interesting tidbits.

Stanford President predicts Great Experimentation in the area of Online Learning

The Tomorrow’s Professor newsletter out of Stanford has an interesting article about comments made by Stanford President, John Hennessy, about the future of online learning

The main point he made was that this is a time of great experimentation in the area of online learning, and education departments around the world need to scientifically study online learning models and teach the rest of the faculty how to tame this beast. Specifically:

Hennessy said that colleges and universities will be taking a more scientific approach to online learning than in the past, relying on their schools of education to measure student learning and to provide feedback.

“I’m actually pretty confident that we’re going to come out with pedagogical approaches that are truly a step forward in terms of helping our students be better learners – and that will really be refreshing,” Hennessy said.

For example, this is an example of some interesting ways in which online courses are used by people around the world:

“Imagine that ‘Book of the Month Club’ becomes ‘Course of the Month Club’,” Hennessy said. “With a little bit of technology, a community of learners self-assembles around a course and forms a group. They do peer grading. They interchange. They exchange conversations and they learn the material together. I think we’ll see this happening. It would be a wonderful thing and great for the world.”

Another interesting aspect is that the difficulty level of exams probably needs to be adjusted:

At UC Berkeley and Stanford, he said, faculty members design exams to challenge students.”Now, take that exam to a school where perhaps the students are not quite as capable and give them that exam and you’re going to crush them,” he said.

In fact, the one of the most important areas in which online courses are being offered is education itself:

Hennessy said one thing that MOOCs do very well is “educate the educators” in other parts of the world, allowing them to use the material to prepare courses for their students.

And finally, this:

In response to a question from the audience, Hennessy said some faculty have reported that more students are attending classes when they have “flipped” the classroom – delivering lectures online and meeting in the classroom for one-on-one interaction and hands-on projects. While those early indicators are positive, he said, controlled experiments would be the key to understanding how well students are mastering the material in those settings.

Read the full article

Online courses need to be more than just video lectures and assignments

Forbes has an interesting article which argues that Coursera and the other posterboys of online education are getting it wrong, and other companies (specifically, 2U and CorpU) are doing it better. The basic theme of the article is that online courses need to be much more than video-lectures

Let’s start with this provocative quote:

One of the founders of Coursera has, on multiple occasions, proclaimed that its “innovation” was no less radical than the printing press.

Really? If you have ever taken a MOOC course, you will know that a statement like that might qualify as among the most significant hyperbole of the decade.

I agree that what Coursera has on offer currently, falls far short of this promise, as one look at the completion statistics will show

But, online courses do have potential. What more is needed?

Online Courses need to break away from 1-hour lectures

The first questions is this – does idea of video-taping 1-hour lectures and putting them online really make sense for an online course, or are we doing that simply because that is easier and what we’ve been doing for a 100 years?

First, you cannot do this by simply filming a classroom and posting the video. Lecture capture is online learning 1.0 and, to be frank, it is lame.


You have to share the learning concepts in “bite-size” nuggets that move constantly back and forth from concept to exercise.


Further, high-level production values that use narrative nonfiction, animation and documentary filmmaking techniques are essential.

Online courses have less interactivity than classrooms

When you take people out of the classroom, they lose the primary touch point of that social experience. You have to replace this with touch points through online modalities. These range from synchronous sessions facilitated by faculty to team-based exercises and problem solving. There are many ways to build in social experiences in the online environment, but online learning architects must be thoughtful about it.

Online courses can beat classrooms with data

Third, data collection allows for better outcomes. As I have noted elsewhere, “Big data in the online learning space [gives] institutions the predictive tools they need to improve learning outcomes for individual students. By designing a curriculum that collects data at every step of the student learning process, universities can address student needs with customized modules, assignments, feedback and learning trees in the curriculum that will promote better and richer learning.” We are still at the early stages of capturing and utilizing data in this way, but the opportunities for dynamic learning are tremendous.

Read the full article.

Also read our other posts about MOOCs.

Do online courses really work? Only 5% of registrants complete MOOCs

Researchers from MIT/Harvard have a study on completion statistics of MOOCs. They analyzed data from 17 MOOCs offered by Harvard and MIT in 2012 and 2013, and found this:


– 841,687 people registered for the 17 MOOCs from Harvard and MIT.
– 5 percent of all registrants earned a certificate of completion.
– 35 percent never viewed any of the course materials.
– 54 percent of those who “explored” at least half of the course content earned a certificate of completion.
– 66 percent of all registrants already held a bachelor’s degree or higher.
– 74 percent of those who earned a certificate of completion held a bachelor’s degree or higher.
– 29 percent of all registrants were female.
– 3 percent of all registrants were from underdeveloped countries.

So, only 5% of registrants complete. And that is after you define completion as “explored at least half of the course content”

The rest of the article tries to argue that completion rates aren’t the best way to judge a MOOC:

A MOOC is more of a blank canvas, said Mr. Ho. Some students who register for MOOCs have no intention of completing, and some instructors do not emphasize completion as a priority. Success and failure take many forms.

I don’t buy it. Most of the people I know who registered for MOOCs would have loved to complete it, but did not have the discipline/motivation to complete. (This list includes me.)

Read the full article

Online Courses / MOOCs for India – A discussion

Recently InnoVidya facilitated a discussion between COEP, [Observer Research Foundation, Bombay] a think-tank working in the area of Education, and InnoVidya, to talk about the use of online courses and MOOC technologies at COEP in particular, but in the Indian education system in general.

Here are some interesting points that I noted during this discussion. These are neither supposed to be comprehensive, nor representative. And it is possible that I might have mis-represented some of the things that are said. But even with all those disclaimers, this is still an interesting discussion.

Are Online Courses or MOOCs going to work in India?

  • Leena Wadia reports talking to an MIT (USA) professor who runs an online course, and he pointed out that it takes him 16 hours of preparation to create one online lecture. (But all this effort is helping his offline lectures too!)
    • Shridhar Shukla points out that given the state of technology adoption in India and amongst Indian faculty, this is going to be an even more difficult task. Hence, creating new online content is a big effort, and probably should not be a focus.
  • Dr. Gautam Shroff, Chief Scientist, TCS Research, has said that there are many people in tier 2 / tier 3 colleges or even in Indian software companies who participate in US based MOOCs (e.g. Coursera, edX, etc). These people need additional inputs beyond what is provided by the MOOCs. He said that they do not have the level to grasp the online lectures and we need to supplement them with helpful local courses/workshops.
  • Anil Sahasrabudhe, Diretor of COEP, points out that Coursera courses assume various things that the students are already supposed to know, or be able to do, and unfortunately, most Indian students are not really equipped for that. In fact, even for IIT courses, which are being put online at NPTEL and other platforms, are not grasped by students from tier 2 / tier 3 colleges in India, because of similar reasons. We need to do something to fix this.

We need Online Courses in Local Languages

  • Prof. Abhijit A.M. of COEP points out that if a subject is taught in a mix of languages: English and a local language, students respond much better. This is because many students come from rural India, or at least small towns, and most of their “English medium” school instruction actually happened in the regional language
  • Leena Wadia points out that asking faculty members to create online content in local languages (i.e. a mix of English and Hindi, or Telugu) can be motivating for them. Because there is lots of competition for online content in English, but nobody is doing it in local languages. So, suddenly the faculty member gets the feeling that they can do something which has not been done before, and they are contributing value.