MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses

Many of us would have faced some difficulty in learning a new subject by ourselves that was needed for our research work or for progress in career. Today, it is possible to learn a new subject by attending courses offered by experts in the subject area from the world’s best universities. One could do this sitting at one’s own home or lab at a convenient time – and what’s more – all this is free of cost. This is turning out to be a major revolution that the internet has made possible in the field of education: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are all about this revolution. As the name indicates, the courses are massive because there is no limit on the number of students who can register and usually a large number of students register; open because they are free of cost and open to everyone; online because they are offered not in the traditional class room but on the internet.

MOOCs came into existence as professors from some of the leading universities in the world started to put up their course material on the internet so that it could be accessed free of cost. The idea behind MOOCs is that the knowledge acquired by humanity should be proactively made accessible to everyone. Consider a situation where a student is unable to go to a good university for higher studies due to one of the several possible reasons: financial constraints, family constraints or probably for being just short of making it to the merit list. Usually, he/she would have to be content with whatever college is then available. However, with the advent of MOOCs, the student will now have access to the courses offered by the very same university and even all the other best universities in the world with just one pre-requisite – having access to a computer with an internet connection. Is this not wonderful?!!

Evolution of MOOCs (Open Online Courses)

The idea of open online courses in not as recent as it might seem. About a decade ago, when I was a B.Tech student, I stumbled upon MIT Open Course Ware, wherein the pdf files containing lecture notes, assignments and answers of courses offered at MIT were made freely accessible online so that students from across the globe could download them and make use of them. As the time progressed, the open courses evolved to become more and more interactive. Today, MOOCs typically include videos of the instructor delivering the lecture interspersed with quizzes, end-of-the-lecture assignments and exams. A statement of accomplishment is given to the students who successfully complete the course. MOOCs are very close to giving students the experience of attending a course in a real class room.

I have noticed three major styles of offering the open online courses. They are:

1. The lectures delivered by Professors in the university class rooms are recorded and the videos are made available on the internet along with assignments, exams and answers. We are allowed to download all of them together and study at our own pace. e.g., MIT Open Course Ware.

2. Lectures are specially designed for MOOCs. The lectures are interspersed with quizzes to make them more interactive and are supplemented with end-of-the-lecture questions, assignments and exams to evaluate one’s understanding of the subject material. A student needs to sign up for the course and can access the material only in a pre-defined order. For example, we can access chapter two only after completing all the exercises and exams in chapter 1. Every time we sign into the course, we can start off from where we had left off the previous time. There are no deadlines and one can pursue the course at a pace suited to one’s own convenience. e.g., Udacity Courses.

3. The third style of offering courses is more common these days and is very similar to the second, except that the schedule of the course is pre-determined. One needs to complete the assignments and exams before the deadline so as to achieve a statement of accomplishment. This style works best for students who prefer to have a deadline to complete the task at hand. e.g., Coursera courses, edX courses.

Here, I should mention that Coursera offers a few popular courses in signature track wherein, a student can pay money to get his/her identity verified and get a certificate of accomplishment which is authenticated by Coursera.

What are the kinds of courses available?

At first glance, the variety of courses that are available is too good to believe. Courses are found from all branches of basic sciences, all branches of engineering, social sciences, law, public health, philosophy, arts, music – you mention a name and you are more likely to find it than not. The difficulty level varies from as basic as Elementary Biology or Organic Chemistry to as advanced as Quantum Physics and Digital Signal Processing. As more Universities are going to join hands in this endeavour, the number and variety of courses is bound to increase further. A few examples of the courses offered through Coursera are:

  • Writing in the Sciences (Stanford University)
  • Mathematical Bio-statistics Boot Camp (John Hopkins University)
  • Virology 1: How viruses work (Columbia University)
  • Introduction to Engineering Mechanics (Georgia Institute of Technology)
  • Constitutional Law (Yale University)
  • Introduction to Philosophy (University of Edinburgh)
  • Introduction to Guitar (Berklee College of Music)

Table 1 lists some of the popular platforms and the types of open online courses that they offer.



What difference can these open online courses make?

The ability of a single teacher to reach virtually an unlimited number of students without compromising on quality is a very powerful phenomenon and could have far-reaching consequences. The scientific journal Nature recently came up with a special feature titled “Learning in the Digital Age” and predicted that the MOOCs could alter the face of economics and dynamics of the education Industry6.

For example, why would a student want to pay money to a college, when there is access to the best lectures on the same subject free of cost? Does this mean that several middle tier colleges and academic institutions will have to restrict their activities to providing laboratory facilities? The idea may now seem far-fetched, but we cannot really rule out the possibility. Even if we ignore the future implications of the onset of MOOCs, they do not fail to make an immediate and palpable impact on both the students and the faculty.

Name of the Open Online Course Provider

How did it start?

What are the kinds of courses available?
MIT Open Course Ware1 Started in 2001 when MIT decided to publish educational material from all its courses freely on the web. Academic material for more than 2000 courses of higher learning from different areas has been put up online.
Udacity2 Udacity was founded after one of its co-founders Prof. Sebastien Thrun along with his colleague had experimentally offered the course “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” online for free and about 1,60,000 students from more than 160 countries registered for it. Udacity offers very high quality and interactive courses predominantly in the area of computer science and mathematics. The courses are categorized as beginner, intermediate and advanced. A few beginner level courses are offered in physics, biology and psychology. In total there are about 30 courses.
edX3 edX was co-founded by Harvard and MIT and now includes about 28 partner Universities from all over the world (though primarily from the USA). IIT Bombay from India is a partner. edX currently offers about 60 interactive courses of higher education on subjects including science, engineering, law, social science and so on.
Coursera4 Coursera is one of the most recent but rapidly growing platforms for offering MOOCs. Coursera currently has about 80 partner universities and offers about 400 courses. Coursera is a for-profit venture and was awarded “Best Overall start-up” for the year 2012 in the 6th Annual Crunchies Awards5. The courses offered at Coursera vary widely in the subject areas as well as in the difficulty levels. Coursera is expanding to offer courses not only in English but also in other languages – currently a few courses are offered in French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Arabic and Italian.

Table 1: Details of popular providers of MOOCs and the types of courses that they offer.

MOOCs are beneficial to students in the following ways:

1. They give the freedom to attend the courses at any convenient time.

2. They are free of cost and cause no additional financial burden.

3. They are usually offered by experts in the field who have a zeal for teaching.

MOOCs may bring about the following impact for the Professors:

1. The ability to reach a large number of students across the world ought to be an immense source of satisfaction. In a traditional class room, the number of students for a popular course may go as high as a few hundred. However, in MOOCs, there is virtually no limit to the number – up to several tens of thousands of students have registered in some of the popular Online Courses.

2. The discussion forums in MOOCs act as a source of candid and instantaneous feedback about the course. A young faculty, who is evolving his/her course may find the feedback very useful in evaluating which parts of the course were well received and which parts may need further modification.

Is there something that we can (should) do at IISc?

1. Recording the lectures delivered by Professors in the class rooms

A practice of recording all the important talks (delivered in the Faculty Hall) has already been set in IISc. The links to the recorded lectures are made available on the IISc home page. Similarly, it will be good if the lectures delivered by the Professors in the class rooms are recorded and made available online. Additional expenditure and effort involved in this exercise will clearly be out-weighed by the invaluable resource that will be built. The recorded lectures can be accessed by students on campus who find the course beneficial but cannot attend it due to time constraints caused by experimentation or lab work. The lectures can also be accessed by students all over the country and world. Additionally, the lectures can be archived to be accessible even after the Professor has retired from active research.

2. Making online courses for subjects which are pre-requisites for inter-disciplinary research

Unlike in the past, research in inter-disciplinary areas has become the norm in the present day research community. In such a situation, one may feel uncomfortable in starting work without having a good foundation of a subject area that is needed for the research. To quote a few examples that I have observed on our campus:

i. A communications engineer working on neurotransmission needs to learn about the biology of neurons.

ii. Physicists and chemists embarking on structural studies of biological molecules need to have a knowledge of molecular biology.

iii. Many biologists need to have a better understanding of mathematics (probability, statistics and calculus) to be able to better evaluate their experimental results.

iv. Many researchers need to have fundamental knowledge of programming principles and an acquaintance with Linux operating systems to be able work more efficiently.

In most cases like the above, the students acquire the deficient knowledge slowly with time in a somewhat inefficient manner. Would it not be great if these pre-requisites are built into courses or learning tools and made available online? Students can then get a quick and confident launch into their area of work.

One way to achieve this goal is by mutual and reciprocal cooperation. For example, the students in biological sciences can make the learning tools required for engineers working at the interface of biology and vice versa. A one-time effort put in this endeavour will yield benefits for several years to come. Once again, this material can be made available on the internet and may turn out to be a very useful resource to teachers and students across the country.


Concluding thoughts

Though it is undeniable that MOOCs can empower the students with quality higher education irrespective of their country of residence and financial status, these Open Online Courses will always lack an important ingredient of higher learning: the opportunity for the student to directly interact with the teacher. As a graduate student in IISc, I had the privilege of raising my hand to interrupt a Professor and clarify my doubts during a lecture. In some instances when I was too timid to do that during the class, I used to meet the Professor at the end of the class and ask my questions. In most cases, the ensuing one-to-one discussion would have dispelled my doubts or at least left me with some food for thought in the right direction. This privilege of one-to-one interaction is something which MOOCs will never be able to provide to the students as that would be precluded just by the sheer number of students participating in the course. Nevertheless, MOOCs enable the students to access the world’s best sources of learning with a few key strokes and mouse-clicks. What could be a more powerful tool in a student’s arsenal in the mission towards higher learning?

A revolution in the process of learning and education is set forth with the advent of Massive Open Online Courses. As a part of the premier academic institution of our country, we have two paths to choose from at this juncture: 1. Be prepared and poised to adapt to the change; 2. Be proactive, take part and contribute to the change as it unveils itself. I, for one, personally think that we should go with the latter.










K. Aswani Kumar (MBU)


About The Voices team

Like it says, The Voices team, IISc, Bengaluru, India

Posted on October 24, 2013, in Regular issues and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Editorial on the same topic has come in the recent issue of the journal Science (dated 25th October 2013). See the link below.

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