FEATURE: Free Education Goes Online

Many McGill students see recorded lectures as an invitation to take courses from the comfort of their sweatpants and couch. While many students just don’t want to get out of bed, professors at Stanford and educational researchers are thinking bigger: why not offer a course that can be taken from a remote village, a retirement home, or a high school library?

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offer students free education, accessible from anywhere in the world. All a student needs is an internet connection.

Three main providers of the online goods are Coursera, edX, and Udacity. All three have been in the news lately, with recent profiles of the sites and their founders in the New York Times, The Atlantic, NPR. The attention is focused on the rapid ascent of these online courses and what that may mean for the delivery of higher education. Indeed, Udacity calls itself “a growing group of educators and engineers, on a mission to change the future of education.”

A New Way to Educate

Rising demand for higher education coupled with increasing costs led universities to look for smarter ways to deliver courses.

Better teaching techniques mean courses can be scaled to reach more students without losing quality. MOOCs can be used to develop these techniques as they are open-source, online platforms.

One area where MOOCs might break through is “flipping the classroom,” a teaching technique by which content is learned outside of class, and classtime is used for problem solving. In the past, this content would have come from a textbook, but now, instructors can use the growing library of online lectures provided by MOOCs.

Carl Wieman, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, co-authored a study that concluded students in a “flipped” large-enrollment physics class learned more than twice as much as their peers in conventional lectures.

“The traditional lecture is simply not successful in helping most students achieve mastery of fundamental concepts,” writes Wieman in his charming article “Why Not Try A Scientific Approach to Science Education” on science20.com.

The MOOC Experience

Students in massive McGill courses (e.g. any course held in Leacock 132) are familiar with the components of a MOOC: recorded lectures, discussion forums, and assignments graded by computers. MOOC providers seek to improve on these teaching tools with the help of pedagogical research. One classic education problem is the limited short-term memory of the human brain. The average McGill lecture presents more information than a student is physically capable of absorbing. Most students work around this problem by reviewing slides or notes to remind themselves of information.

Since MOOC lectures aren’t limited by scheduling or room availability, information can be presented in small, 10-18 minute segments. This allows students to absorb the information at their own pace.

Constant feedback is another strategy that MOOCs use to help students. In-lecture quizzes evaluate comprehension every few minutes. Since assignments are graded instantly, students can re-submit them until they receive full marks. The focus is on mastery and not initial success.

All these forms of feedback could be used in a conventional class. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in many McGill courses. A student might wait weeks between learning a concept and getting back a graded assignment; by that time, the professor has probably moved onto a new topic.

One area where MOOCs fall short is their lack of personal interaction. MOOC sites have tried to compensate with discussion boards and social networking for users who want to start study groups in their own cities. The lack of personal interaction means lecturers can’t ensure that students are turning in their own work—a huge obstacle for MOOCs hoping to provide credit to students.

Another problem for MOOCs is providing a wider range of subjects. Computers can easily grade assignments for basic computer programming or engineering classes, but essays are another story.

To solve this issue, MOOC providers are experimenting with a system of peer-reviewing. Students practice grading until they are able to match the score the professor would give on a series of assignments. Every assignment is graded by five students who have passed the marking test, and the final score is an average of the five marks.

Will McGill Launch a MOOC?

The rise of MOOCs shows that universities and educators are eager to experiment with new teaching methods.

The growing list of big name universities that have embraced the MOOC trend means schools should ignore it at their own peril.

The University of Virginia sees such potential in MOOCs that board members temporarily ousted president Teresa Sullivan in June, only to reinstate her two weeks later. Emails between board members reveal that her percieved lack of aggressive action on developing MOOCs contributed to their call for her resignation.

In an interview with the Tribune, McGill Director of Content and Collaboration Solutions Sharon Roy said that McGill has established a working group to learn more about MOOCs and whether they are right for the university.

“We’ve just started investigating MOOCs and what kinds of opportunities they might provide and what would be involved in setting them up,” Roy said.

Although the work group is still in its early stages, Roy said McGill already has online teaching capabilities.

“We’re really familiar with online learning technologies at McGill. We make really extensive use of it,” she said. Roy noted that while online courses have their advantages, many students have commented that there is no substitute for one-on-one time with a professor.

“We haven’t been aggressive in developing online learning courses where there is none of that contact between instructors and students.”

Another challenge is the cost of setting up the courses. “They’re not free—that’s for sure—and as you know we want to be very careful with where we spend our money and how we spend it,” Roy said.

In the meantime, McGill students can benefit from the growing list of MOOCs already available.

Finding a MOOC

This fall, courses on all three sites are free, though you must pay Udacity a small fee for a certificate that confirms you took the class. Edx has plans to implement a similar fee. Udacity also charges businesses to view the resumes of top students in certain classes—students pay nothing to give their resume to Udacity. Both Coursera and Udacity use a social networking site called Meetup to organize study groups. Montreal groups on both sites have already scheduled meetings this month.

The Future of Higher Education?

It’s still unclear what role MOOCs will play in the coming years. Will they remain a niche for pure learning, come to replace universities, or wither under financial pressure? Certainly, they are already forcing universities to re-think the value of higher education.

The internet has led us to expect free information, and free education seems to be the next logical step. With that said, however, will students be willing to continue to pay thousands of dollars for classes they can take free online?

Yes, say many MOOC site founders and educators, as the true value of a university lies in the campus environment. Students are paying for the chance to meet one-on-one with their professors, study with a diverse group of peers, and benefit from the university’s network.

One thing is clear—MOOCs are still growing in popularity. Over a million students have already registered to take one this fall. Whether this will lead to an exodus out of class and back into bed, only time will tell.



Coursera was founded by two Stanford professors and is backed by Silicon Valley venture capitalists. The site stresses the social good of MOOCs: “We envision a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions.”

The site offers classes from an impressive list of schools including Caltech, Princeton, and Stanford. Another school offering classes on the site, the University of Washington, will be the first to give students credit for Coursera courses.

Notable course: Modern and Contemporary American Poetry is an example of a MOOC that can’t use computers for grading. Assignments will be graded by peer evaluation.


EdX is a joint venture between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. The site uses an open-source online learning platform to offer courses from MIT, Harvard, and UC Berkley.

According to the site: “Along with offering online courses, the institutions will use edX to research how students learn and how technology can transform learning—both on-campus and worldwide.”

Notable Course: 6.002x Circuits and Electronics was the first course offered by MITx and boasts a diverse classroom. According to the edX site the course attracted more than 150,000 students from over 160 countries and those certified in this course range from 14 to 74 years-old.


Udacity is an online university founded by three roboticists, as they call themselves, one of them a Stanford professor. Rather than partnering with existing universities, it deals directly with instructors to find content for courses.

Udacity offers a free job placement program through partnerships with more than 20 high tech companies.

Notable Course: Artificial Intelligence taught by Sebastian Thrun is one of the original MOOCs. Thrun decided to offer the Stanford class online in 2011 and was shocked when it attracted more than 160,000 students.

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