Can MOOCs Work? What makes Professional Learning Viable.

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From the beginning of my teaching career 40 years ago, I’ve moved back and forth between teaching undergraduate and graduate students in universities and teaching professional development courses in the same technical areas via a variety of formats, including remote video, on-site courses around the world, online courses, youtube courses and lately a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). Over the years two questions have concerned me. What is the difference between the two groups? and should they be treated differently? My answers are complex, debatable and have changed over time.

On-Campus vs. MOOCs

My teaching outside of the standard on-campus classes started when I was a graduate student at USC. I earned extra money by teaching a section of a regular graduate course at or near some of the aerospace companies in the LA area. Later these remote sections became part of the on-campus course through one of the first educational video systems. This trend continued when I came to NM and taught sections both live and via video for students at the national laboratories. Soon after coming to UNM, I started teaching intensive four-day short courses, first in the U.S. and Europe, and later in South America. One of the many outgrowths of these experiences was a understanding of the differences between on-campus full-time students and professionals. While many academics regard professional development with disdain, the professionals worked at least as hard as regular students, although they are under many conflicting demands on their time. In addition, the professionals had very focused goals and were less interested in the theory present in most academic courses.

None of these differences are right or wrong. However, in a time of great interdisciplinary, fewer students are involved in traditional four-year programs, and there is increasing pressure to offer classes that are both relevant and at a reasonable cost, is there a way that we can offer courses to both groups? MOOCs appeared to have great promise to deal with all these issues. I decided to teach one at UNM which is a partner of Coursera. The experience was frustrating at times, involved an enormous amount of work but in the end was rewarding. It also revealed the yet unrealized potential of MOOCs.

The Stats

There are many numbers quoted for MOOCs. Recently there has been a focus on the low completion rates. I have no reason to believe my numbers are unusual but, they point out some of the misunderstandings of what is going on. I started with about 14,500 enrollees, a modest number for MOOCs. In the end about 400 completed the course. That’s a completion rate of less than 3%. But looking a little bit deeper reveals a much different picture. Only about 5000 actually even viewed the first lecture. Apparently because enrollment is free, as is the course, many just sign up when the course is opened. After the first week, I was down to 2500 enrollees. Fair enough, after a week of videos, enrollees could better decide if the course was right for them, a function of the time requirements, the required background and the details of the content. I contend that a completion rate based on this number (16%) is more relevant. Even better is to look at how many completed the first assignment (900) and base the completion rate on this number (44%).

There’s another set of relevant numbers, those that deal with money. Although the course is free, for $50 a participant can earn a verified certificate of completion. Many saw these certificates as a way to make MOOCs financially viable. I had 200 participants pay the $50, generating all of $10,000, obviously no way to break even, even taking into account that I did the course without compensation.

Who’s Enrolling?

To complete the picture, let’s look at the nature of the participants. Virtually all the participants were working professionals whose interest was in expanding their technical skills with the overwhelming majority coming from the U.S, China and India. As many have discovered, the idealistic hope that MOOCs would bring quality education to people in the underdeveloped world does not correspond to what is happening. Nor do the various claims within the academic community (increased quality, lower costs) correlate to the reality that those interested in academic courses are a small percentage of those who participate in technical MOOCs. Consequently, none of the business models used for MOOCs work.

In spite of the above somewhat negative view, both my academic experience and my experience teaching intensive on-site short courses show that there is still hope for MOOCs. A four-day technical course costs about $2500 and expenses for transportation, meals and housing can double that amount. For professional development, my MOOC was orders of magnitude better. Although superficially the content might appear the same, the MOOC, by spreading the content over 10 weeks, has the advantage of allowing for study and reflection on the material and time for the participants to do significant project work. In addition, the online forums provided help and community building. And it was free! Surely if the MOOC provides such benefits, there must be a middle ground between free and expensive, in which MOOCs would be financially viable.

Potential Utilization Methods

Aside from the Stanfords and MITs that can experiment with and support almost any teaching modality, is there a role for academia in MOOCs? I think there is using a hybrid approach that would include both an academic and professional development audience based on the flipped classroom popularized by the Khan Academy. I would start an on-line fifteen-week academic course and a ten-week MOOC at the same time. They would use the same videos for the ten weeks during which those registered for the academic course would do more readings and more projects. During the final five weeks of the academic course, the students would explore more advanced topics than in the MOOC. Students outside the university could register for the academic course as non-degree students at a greatly reduced tuition, perhaps $100-$200, and would receive transferable credits. I think it would work and I’d love to try it.


Edward Angel is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at the University of New Mexico and Founding Director of the Art, Research, Technology and Science Laboratory ( ARTS Lab). Until July, 2007, he was Professor of Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Media Arts at UNM and Director of both the ARTS Lab and the Arts Technology Center in the College of Fine Arts. Professor Angel is the first UNM Presidential Teaching Fellow. He received B.S. from the California Institute of Technology in 1964 and a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in 1968. He has held academic positions at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Southern California, and the University of Rochester. Professor Angel came to UNM in 1978. He was Associate Chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (1982–85) and Chair of the Computer Science Department (1985–88). He has held visiting positions at the Lund Institute of Technology (Sweden), the Indian Institute of Science Bangalore India (Senior Fulbright Lecturer), University College London and Imperial College (London). He has also held a variety of joint appointments ranging from Biomathematics (USC) to Obstetrics and Gynecology (Rochester) to Electrical and Computer Engineering and Media Arts (UNM). His present research interests are in computer graphics and scientific visualization. He has supported graduate students working in volume visualization, virtual reality, and masssively parallel computing. His main teaching interests have been in Computer Graphics.

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