Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): The Thursday Plenary Session

by | Jun 6, 2013 | 0 comments


MOOC Panel (L-R): Laura Leichum, Franny Lee , Mimi Coulter, Dan McFarland, David Smith

Thursday’s plenary session, “MOOCs: Everybody’s Doing It, But What’s In It For Me?”, featured this panel discussing the rapidly emerging field of MOOCs.  David Smith (CABI), the moderator opened with an introduction to MOOCs and said that their best definition can be found on Wikipedia, which says that a MOOC is “an online course aimed at large-scale interactive participation and open access via the web.”  He said that everything old has become new again: the Open University was launched to provide distance learning, and it used to do course lectures as videos.

Here are today’s 3 leading major MOOC providers.

There are a number of others also, of which KhanAcademy is probably the leading one.

Dan McFarland, a professor at Stanford, described the MOOC course that he developed and taught, on the subject of organizational analysis.  It had 45 students in the physical class and over 81,000 Coursera students online.  Dan’s goals were to provide high quality course content to the world, engage students, offer free and discounted readings, enable peer evaluation of term papers (obviously, he was not able to read over 81,000 submissions!), study the course to improve it and offer a “flipped” classroom experience to the Stanford students.  (A flipped classroom is one in which students conducted the discussion and activities to enrich the experience.)

The course lessons were all scripted and sent to students, and an “iTunes” version of readings was produced and sent to the students. Dan worked with sipX to produce them.  Most people liked the course.  Here are some of the conclusions and lessons learned from this experience:

The main result was that the course reached a population that would not ordinarily have been reached.  It was also interesting to observe that many students translated the course lessons into another language.

Mimi Coulter from the Stanford University Libraries (SUL) presented the librarian’s view of MOOCs.  The main impacts fell in the areas of copyright, effect on learning management systems and tools, video and media support, and training for and later by staff.  A Vice Provost for Online Learning has recently been appointed, and this has encouraged the development of MOOCs.  Here are some of the lessons learned:


Franny Lee from SIPX discussed a study of MOOC user behaviors that looked at questions such as “What content do professors select for their courses?”, “Will students buy it?”, and “What new methods are publishers trying?”  SIPX is an end to end system to manage, distribute, and measure course materials for higher education.  It uses cloud-based technology, brings all the stakeholders together, and can blend into existing campus systems.  The advantages of this system are that

  • Professors can select the materials they want their students to use,
  • The school’s time is saved because the materials in the system have already been copyright-cleared,
  • Students can buy and use copies for themselves through a pay-per-use system, and can benefit from their school’s library holdings, and
  • Publishers can experiment with varying pricing systems.

Publishers are willing to experiment with the SIPX system because of the huge numbers of students who have made a commitment to a deeper personal experience in learning a subject.  (There are students from 90 countries on the SIPX system.)

On-campus students exhibit different behaviors than MOOC students.  The on-campus students (or their parents) have invested large amounts of money in their education so they have an incentive to complete their courses.  In contrast, MOOC students typically want to brush up  on their skills or learn basic information about a subject.  Flat fee pricing for a class does not fit the MOOC model.

MOOCs can solve problems for both professors and students. What are cost tolerances? What are most popular articles? What about geographically-specific pricing which will reach a broader audience? Many students in developing countries have little or no money for education. What content is associated with the most successful students in the courses?

The final presentation was by Laura Leichum from Georgetown University Press, who presented the viewpoint of a publisher.  What is a publisher’s role if everything is massive and open? MOOCs are moving towards being a little less massive and open and are focusing on enrolled students in a distance learning model. Publishers have been providing materials for this model for a while, and many of them have a business model already set up. Do students get a credit if they enroll and pay? Is there a demand for purely open materials or licensed ones as well? It’s very difficult to review materials in a video-based class. Text still matters!

Opportunities for publishers include increasing discoverability on a huge global scale. They have the ability to find and serve an independent or non-traditional learner but must rethink how to package and deliver content (“shorts”, “in brief” works, etc.).  MOOCs also might be a potential acquisitions tool allowing them to see what’s popular and what’s working.  A good article on MOOCs appeared in the New Yorker and was entitled “Laptop U“.

And here are some issues and challenges.

Georgetown University Press (GUP) had a good initial MOOC experience.



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