Today’s Online Education: The Massive and the Intimate

The New York Times has christened 2012 as “The Year of the MOOC.” No, “MOOC” has nothing to do with the presidential election or with Hurricane Sandy. “MOOC” means “Massive Open Online Course.” It is the name for a new mode of online education.

MOOCs are exploding in popularity. According to Laura Pappano, writing for the Times:

The paint is barely dry [in the new edX offices], yet edX, the nonprofit start-up from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has 370,000 students this fall in its first official courses. That’s nothing. Coursera, founded just last January, has reached more than 1.7 million — growing “faster than Facebook,” boasts Andrew Ng, on leave from Stanford to run his for-profit MOOC provider.

“This has caught all of us by surprise,” says David Stavens, who formed a company called Udacity with Sebastian Thrun and Michael Sokolsky after more than 150,000 signed up for Dr. Thrun’s “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” last fall, starting the revolution that has higher education gasping. A year ago, he marvels, “we were three guys in Sebastian’s living room and now we have 40 employees full time.”

In the past, online education involved enrolling in classes, paying tuition, interacting with faculty online, and getting course credit from a credentialed institution. As Pappano explains, “The MOOC, on the other hand, is usually free, credit-less and, well, massive.”

Yet, the success of the massive online course depends, ironically, on its ability to facilitate intimacy, even face-to-face relationships:

Ray Schroeder, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois, Springfield, says three things matter most in online learning: quality of material covered, engagement of the teacher and interaction among students. The first doesn’t seem to be an issue — most professors come from elite campuses, and so far most MOOCs are in technical subjects like computer science and math, with straightforward content. But providing instructor connection and feedback, including student interactions, is trickier.

“What’s frustrating in a MOOC is the instructor is not as available because there are tens of thousands of others in the class,” Dr. Schroeder says. How do you make the massive feel intimate?”

MOOCs do so by facilitating communities among students, both online and embodied:

Because anyone with an Internet connection can enroll, faculty can’t possibly respond to students individually. So the course design — how material is presented and the interactivity — counts for a lot. As do fellow students. Classmates may lean on one another in study groups organized in their towns, in online forums or, the prickly part, for grading work. [emphasis added]

The experience of MOOC students underscores the value of interaction among students. Consider the case of Kimberly Spillman, a software engineer, who enrolled in seven MOOCS but only complete three:

The ones I have study groups with people, those are the ones I finish,” Ms. Spillman says. She first joined a group for Dr. Thrun’s artificial intelligence course, and then ran one for a Udacity course on building a search engine, organizing Thursday-evening discussions of the week’s material followed by a social hour at a nearby pub. [emphasis added]

Or consider the case of Jacqueline Spiegel, who has a master’s in computer science from Columbia:

While taking “Artificial Intelligence,” she discovered she liked puzzling through assignments in online study groups. . . . Ms. Spiegel befriended women in India and Pakistan through Facebook study groups and started an online group, CompScisters, for women taking science and technology MOOCs.

Testimonial evidence suggests that the massive course works best when there are context for non-massive, intimate community, either online or in person. That’s why Coursera, for example, offers “tools for students to plan ‘meet-ups’ with Courserians in about 1,400 cities worldwide.” There you have it, the massive: 1,400 cities across the globe; and the intimate: face-to-face meet-ups, where students gather for study or socializing.

Sanders Theater at Harvard University, filled to the brim with students for Michael Sandel’s “Justice” course. In some years, this course included more than 1,000 students. I was a teaching fellow for this course when it began in the early 1980s. I led a couple of sections for discussion and graded my students’ work.

I find all of this fascinating, though not particularly surprising. Just because we now have the potential to offer online education across the glob, this doesn’t erase the human desire for embodied relationship. Moreover, though certain kinds of learning can be effectively experienced online, other kinds of learning are best facilitated in small groups where people can interact personally. Conversation in community is an essential piece of true learning, not to mention true living.

In a sense, the massive/intimate model isn’t particularly new, though the scale of the massive has certainly grown. When I was in college, I took a course called Humanities 103 (or Hum 103), “The Great Age of Athens.” Professor John Finley’s lectures filled Sanders Theater with about 800 students each time the course was offered. But, in addition to the lectures, there were also “sections” in which about 15 students gathered to discuss the course material.

The moral of the story: as we hear more and more about the “massive” online courses, let’s not forget the need for “non-massive” communities. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the success even of the MOOCs depends on the creation of contexts for genuine, intimate relationship.

"I doubt when Jesus told us to 'love your neighbour as yourself' He was thinking ..."

How Can I Really Love My ..."
"Be considerate. Take the time to look beyond yourself and go "Would I like it ..."

How Can I Really Love My ..."
"God loved His creation and sought to restore it from its brokenness. Jesus came to ..."

The Gospel in a Nutshell – ..."
"If you're paid to work a certain number of hours per week, then why would ..."

Work, Justice, and Rest – A ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • PeterCaoLaser

    Sebastian Thrun had lost his credibility when he got involved into fascism crimes which had endangered human lives
    There is actually a war between fascism and anti-fascism, at this stage, fascism still prevails in our lives, Eric Schmidt, Sebastian Thrun and Gabriele Scheler are just front figures we could see in this fascism circle, there is a whole pack of fascists behind them
    Eric, as we can see, starting from Gabriele Scheler’s atrocity case on Stanford campus back in 2004, many people, including Gabriele Scheler, Sebastian Thrun, you Eric Schmidt, Professor Ed Feigenbaum of Sebastian Thrun’s boss in Stanford Computer Science department, and also Eric Schmidt’s colleague in China Kaifu Lee, had made contributions to such fascism crimes which had cost human life of Stanford student May Zhou and crimes which had retaliated on victims and almost cost life of the victim as I am …
    … … and someone who had provided legal coverage for your fascism crimes, including a powerful officer from Santa Clara DA Office, namely ZZZ (and after ZZZ, another officer YYY), and the officer VVV who’s in charge of Gabriele Scheler’s case and who had further collateralled with your side(suspect Eric Schmidt, Sebastian Thrun and Gabriele Scheler’s side) to conspire and curse victims( Stanford, May Zhou, me) in every possible way since 2006 till today; and maybe include the officer RRR who insist on May Zhou’s death as a suicide or accident, even though I had clearly pointed out who’s involved in May Zhou’s murder case …
    … … and someone who could provide political support for your fascism crimes, including top politician from the country of Germany whom we all know — Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, and maybe include a retired top politician from UK as well, etc. and more and more to find out later …
    I believe, though some names missed out, all names mentioned in the above comment are part of this fascism circle

  • PeterCaoLaser

    Sebastian Thrun, a Germany Scholar who had got Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit when she visited Stanford in 2010, had partialy left Stanford Computer Science department because he is in debt to Stanford people with his involvement into Stanford student May Zhou’s death, he is not innocent in an unsuccessful plotted murder on me either and I have been cursed by powers from Sebastian Thrun’s side for many years. Sebastian Thrun dare not deny to the public his involvement into such fascism crimes till today and I am still waiting to see why he dare not

    I believe Chancellor Angela Merkel had monitored and invovled into Sebastian Thrun, Gabriele Scheler and Eric Schmidt’s fight against ruling from authorities of Stanford and authorities of U.S. over their unruly criminal behaviors on campus of Stanford, and which ensued a series of crimes, including killing the innocent, conspire life of the victim, terrorize/extort authorities, corruption, miscarriage of justice, discrimination against Asian, all on land of America, etc.

  • PeterCaoLaser

    Also, other than Angela Merkel of Germany Chancellor, it seems there exists a power center of anti-authority in Stanford Computer Science department in this fascism circle to support unruly criminal behaviors of Sebastian Thrun’s side

    Someone from inside of this department had made Stanford Computer Science department play a big role in such series of fascism crimes ((e.g. Sebastian Thrun’s boss in Stanford Computer Science Professor Emeritus Ed Feigenbaum, who had peeked my emails which police told me is crime; and a big donor CCC who manipulated the handling of this case with discriminative favor of Gabriele Scheler/Sebastian Thrun in Stanford, and more, Thrun’s student and colleagues had for sake of Thrun (possibly with guidance of someone as Feigenbaum?) falsely accused me at police which I believe is another set of crime … professor teaches students to commit crime … professor Ed Feigenbaum of Sebastian Thrun’s boss in Stanford Computer Science department is a crime supporter… details later … )) which is highlighted by the killing of an innocent Stanford student May Zhou as well as an unsuccessful plotted murder on me.from inside of this department had made Stanford Computer Science department play a big role in such series of fascism crimes which is highlighted by the killing of an innocent Stanford student May Zhou as well as an unsuccessful plotted murder on me.

  • PeterCaoLaser

    Q&A of flaws in the handling of Stanford student May Zhou’s death by certain police officers, which served a big role in a series of fascism crimes, in response to Eric Schmidt and Sebastian Thrun’s side of their argues at [iDOTdoubtDOTit/tag/sebastian-thrun/] (replace DOT with . to get the right address)
    “Dr. Kelly Arthur of the Sonoma County coroner’s office, is reported to have reviewed it and said she stood by her original finding that there were not any signs of trauma.” — that still would not gurantee a suicide conclusion, would it? where/when/how did those trauma come into being, then? Can Dr. Kelly Arthur explain? or would it be wiser for the officer who drew conclusion of suicide to make sure where/when/how did those trauma come into being before drawing conclusion of suicide?
    “Except Peter Cao, who asserts that Mengyao Zhou was murdered by or with the
    help of Schmidt and Thrun, in order to intimidate him personally.” — Schmidt did threatened my life with the death of May Zhou for sake of Thrun during their fight with Stanford. I said they killed May Zhou to intimidate me and to terrorize Stanford; you omitted the serious part. My statement is far more reasonable than police can give, don’t you agree?
    “… and an email that Zhou sent to her 16-year-old sister as “consistent with a goodbye note.”
    — can we see such an email before we could believe it? How much good-bye is there in it? How to explain the fact that May Zhou had transferred money to pay off debt before her disappearance?
    “But then you can’t expect someone killing themselves to make choices that appear rational to others. If it’s not tasteless to speculate, perhaps she felt ashamed and wanted to hide herself.”
    — Is that the way you describe death of an innocent girl as May Zhou is? Shame on you!
    — Would the officer in charge of May Zhou’s case agree? How to get connect with such an officer? I have serious stuff to report

  • Someone on the interwebs yesterday was saying this: “As the world grows at the pace of the Jetsons, the winners are the folks who remember to act like the Flintstones.”

    OK, it’s a bit goofy. But it basically means what you are saying. We may have all the fancy technology in the world, but that doesn’t change what it means to be human.

  • Interesting perspective – It basically all comes down to scaling what can be scaled. The core instruction, done through lecturing, can be scaled indefinitely, just as book publishing is scaled and hundreds share the same textbook. But, the explaining and interacting aspect can’t be scaled (meaning one person can’t have face-to-face interaction with hundreds), so that’s why universities have peer groups and teacher’s assistants, and Coursera uses groups and communities. One more element is evaluation, some of which can be automated (and therefore scaled), and some of which can’t. I’ll be using an adaptive learning platform to help with the assessment, and groups and recorded lectures to accomplish my next MOOC teaching Spanish to thousands:

  • arthur1526

    I will say this:

    Be certain of
    this, that the highest aim of creation and its most important result is
    belief in God.
    The most exalted
    rank in humanity
    and its highest
    degree is the knowledge of God contained within belief in God. The most radiant
    happiness and sweetest bounty for jinn and human beings is the love of God
    contained within the knowledge of God. And the purest joy for the human spirit
    and the sheerest delight for man’s heart is the rapture of the spirit contained
    within the love of God. Yes, all true happiness, pure joy, sweet bounties, and
    untroubled pleasure lie in knowledge of God and love of God; they cannot exist
    without them.

    The person who
    knows and loves God Almighty may receive endless bounties, happiness, lights,
    and mysteries. While the one who does not truly know and love him is afflicted
    spiritually and materially b y endless misery, pain, and fears. Even if such an
    impotent, miserable person owned the whole world, it would be worth nothing for
    him, for it would seem to him that he was living a fruitless life among the
    vagrant human race in
    a wretched world
    without owner or
    protector. Everyone may understand just how forlorn and baffled
    is man among the aimless human race in this bewildering fleeting world if he
    does not know his Owner, if he does not discover his Master. But if he does
    discover and know Him, he will seek refuge in His mercy and will rely on His
    power. The desolate world will turn into a place of recreation and pleasure, it
    will become a place of trade for the hereafter.

    From Risalei Nur collection by
    Said Nursi.

  • markdroberts

    Peter: I know you care deeply about the things you have described, but I would ask you, in the future, to make sure your comments are relevant to the post. Thank you.