Making Sense of MOOCs

Mar 19 2013 | By Nicole Dyer | Photo: Johannes Kroemer

Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun calls it “the end of education as we know it.” Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen says it’s “creative destruction.” The New York Times hails it as “a grand experiment.” The antecedent, in case you missed it, is MOOCs, education’s buzziest acronym. It stands for massive open online courses and refers to the unexpected boom in online education offered free to anyone with an Internet hookup.

Millions of students worldwide are now soaking up college-level courses by simply logging onto the web to watch video lectures taught by elite professors, take quizzes, and participate in online study groups. It’s college without the campus, a class without the classroom, an education without the tuition. But will it last? Will it undermine traditional higher education, or perhaps enhance it? Which online learning platforms merit the extra investment? How to deal with cheating? What’s the benefit to enrolled students? Questions abound.

This spring, Columbia University will cautiously dip its toes into the MOOC waters in search of answers when The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science begins offering three online courses in partnership with Coursera, the red-hot Silicon Valley start-up founded last January to bring higher education to the wired masses for free.

Watch this video about how Columbia Engineering is spearheading the University's entry into MOOCs, offering three online courses in partnership with Coursera, the hot Silicon Valley start-up that brings higher education to the wired masses for free.

MOOCs represent a unique approach to higher education. We are looking forward to exploring the new opportunities that MOOCs provide seeing how the School and our students can benefit.

Donald Goldfarb
Interim dean of Columbia Engineering

More than 100,000 students have registered so far for Columbia’s three noncredit courses. The classes are described more fully at and include Financial Engineering and Risk Management, co-taught by Industrial Engineering and Operations Research Professors Garud Iyengar and Martin Haugh, with guest lectures by Professor Emanuel Derman; MOS Transistors by Yannis Tsividis, Batchelor Professor of Electrical Engineering; and Natural Language Processing, given by Michael Collins, Vikram S. Pandit Professor of Computer Science.

“MOOCs represent a unique approach to higher education,” says Donald Goldfarb, interim dean of Columbia Engineering. “We are looking forward to exploring the new opportunities that MOOCs provide and seeing how the School and our students can benefit.”

The demand for this new breed of online education has surprised everyone. Tsividis, who will lead the course, has taught traditional, accredited distance-learning classes at Columbia for decades, and even conducted video lectures at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1970s.

But, he says, nothing compares to the mania over MOOCs. “It’s amazing,” he adds, as he watches enrollment in his course increase almost daily. “And this is a course in a highly specialized subject.”

The primary instructors are (from left to right): Michael Collins, Garud Iyengar, Yannis Tsividis, and Martin Haugh.

Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia University’s chief digital officer, a position newly minted last summer in part to help the University navigate this new learning paradigm, calls the response “stunning.” Education, he points out, is traditionally a very slow-moving industry. “Now things are changing fast.”

One big challenge going forward is figuring out how to keep pace without overcommitting to one learning platform.

“We don’t know which technology will prevail and where this space is moving,” says Soulaymane Kachani, senior vice dean at Columbia Engineering. “We don’t want to tie our hands or do anything that would prevent us from experimenting with other technologies.”

That’s where the Coursera partnership comes in. The company’s nonexclusive contract leaves Columbia free to explore other MOOC partnerships, and the Coursera platform offers an enormous audience. As of early this year, nearly 2.5 million students had registered for one or more of Coursera’s 200 free, university-level courses offered by top-tier institutions, including Princeton, Stanford, Duke, Brown, and Johns Hopkins. “It’s exciting to be among those universities that will shape the future of this new educational paradigm,” says Goldfarb.

But what’s in free online education for universities? For starters, it offers global exposure and valuable testing grounds for new teaching models.

“It can enhance how we teach here on campus,” says Kachani. “It can help us learn how to use social media to augment student interactions and peer review. It can showcase our programs and faculty to the world.”

Meanwhile, university officials are keeping close tabs on the rest of the MOOC universe. Harvard and MIT’s joint nonprofit venture, edX, has registered more than 400,000 students for its free online courses.

Udacity, founded by former Stanford University Professor Sebastian Thrun, who set MOOC in motion in December 2011 when his online course in artificial intelligence drew more than 150,000 students, now offers 15 classes in computer science and has enrolled nearly a half million students worldwide. Then there’s the striking success of Khan Academy, a free online library of more than 3,600 video tutorials taught by MIT grad Salman Khan out of his basement. Since its inception in 2009, Khan Academy has amassed more than 240 million views on YouTube.

Yet Columbia is no stranger to online learning. Long before MOOCs appeared on the Internet scene, there was the pioneering Columbia Video Network, or CVN. Created by the Engineering School in 1986, CVN has since let thousands of remotely located students pursue Columbia’s fully accredited engineering courses, certificates, and degree programs over the Internet. (Not that CVN needed the Internet: in the 1980s, it relied on VHS tapes sent through the mail.)

This year, CVN will enroll 600 students. In many ways, MOOC is a natural extension of what CVN has been doing for years. “The Engineering School made perfect sense to start with,” says Sreenivasan. “It’s so far ahead of the rest of the campus when it comes to online learning.”

Where MOOCs differ from past technologies is scale. By definition, MOOC platforms welcome all, regardless of individual qualifications and commitment, and that has led to retention problems. Fewer than 10 percent of students complete a typical MOOC class. Grading is another issue.

Many MOOCs rely on electronic scoring and peer grading, which can create uneven results, and both systems are vulnerable to cheating. Udacity and edX are now offering proctored exams to keep students honest, and Coursera is experimenting with plagiarism detection software, but supervision will become an increasingly thornier issue as MOOCs move toward accreditation.

The Engineering School made perfect sense to start with. It's so far ahead of the rest of the campus when it comes to online learning.

Sree Sreenivasan
Chief Digital Officer, Columbia University

Udacity is already there. Earlier this year, the start-up announced a pilot program with San Jose State University that will allow SJSU and non-SJSU students to take introductory college classes online for credit. The pilot will target high school students, wait-listed students at California Community Colleges, and members of the armed forces and veterans.

Tsividis, for one, is thrilled to take the global stage but worries about the lack of interaction with his students. Like most Coursera classes, his will consist of a series of video lectures, possibly divided into 5- to 20-minute segments that students can watch at their own pace on their own time. The experience may “lack the ‘live’ feeling of a small class, where there is give-and-take between professors and students,” he says. “This may or may not prove to be an important difference depending on how interactively one conducts his or her live classes. If you only lecture, and the students listen passively, then there may not be much of a difference.”

The Facebook generation may actually prefer the impersonal digital experience. Sreenivasan sees a day when enrolled students come to expect MOOC-style courses in addition to the University’s traditional brick-and-mortar classes.

“When this generation gets to college, they’ll ask about things like the ‘flipped classroom,’” says Sreenivasan, referring to a new model of education in which students watch lectures online at home and then do homework in the classroom. “What do you do with that? Is our answer going to be, well, we don’t know anything about that? Or is it that we have a serious plan and this is how we’ve incorporated our courses online?”

Goldfarb notes that the Coursera partnership is just one part of a broader effort to answer that question.

“This past semester, we successfully experimented with a flipped classroom in one of our MS-level graduate programs. Also, we are working on better leveraging our distance learning unit, CVN, for our on-campus students and for our students participating in study abroad programs.”

As for the risk of devaluing the campus experience, Kachani believes nothing will ever compare to the real thing. “There’s a lot more to a Columbia education than just attending the lectures and doing homework,” he notes. “The interaction with the faculty, the resources and research labs, the networking with students. This is irreplaceable.”


Because of an editing error, the original version (print and online) of "Making Sense of MOOCs: Columbia Engineering Jumps into the Market of Massive Open Online Courses" misidentified Professor Yannis Tsividis as "among the first professors to conduct video lectures at the University of California at Berkeley." Professor Tsividis has pointed out to us that he was never a professor at University of California at Berkeley; he conducted video lectures there in the mid-1970s as a lecturer, but does not know if he was among the first to do so. The online version of the article has been corrected. The print version, which has already been published and appears in the Spring 2013 issue of Columbia Engineering, does not reflect this correction but a formal correction will be printed in the Fall 2013 issue of the magazine noting the editing error.

Columbia Engineering Magazine