Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


In the Classroom

empty-classroom-blackboard

(Photo: Humannet/Shutterstock)

Creating Content for Many to Access a Few

• March 06, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: Humannet/Shutterstock)

MOOCs have value even for those who don’t finish them.

Stanford University President John Hennessy said recently that two words are wrong in MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses). Those words are “massive and open.”

Hennessy’s critique lies in the discouraging retention statistics for MOOCs: Many online course students do not finish the course. Typically half of the students who sign up never show up, and often a dismal four to five percent of students actually finish the coursework.

However, the focus of the debate about online courses should not be on attrition; instead, we should focus on whether MOOCs improve access to higher education, particularly for high school students. The debate then comes down to who is included in the four to five percent who stayed rather than who is among the large percentage of students who left.

I created and ran a MOOC through Coursera in fall 2013: “Everything Is The Same: Modeling Engineered Systems.” The eight-week course is based on a first-year engineering class at Northwestern University.

While we can debate whether or not online education competes with residential experiences of a traditional campus, there is no question in my mind that MOOCs are about access.

The class began with 18,000 enrolled students. Only 9,000 ever “came” to class, or logged in. By week eight, only 600 students took the final exam. Of those, only 17 students earned “Distinction,” meaning they not only completed the homework and took the exam, but did experiments at home.

So is the retention rate for my class 17/18,000? Is it 600/18,000—still only a little more than three percent?

Using percentages as the foundation of a discussion of the potential importance of online teaching makes me wonder if such numbers are relevant to understanding the value of MOOCs. Perhaps instead of lamenting the attrition of often empowered students, we should focus on the number of students who benefited from the access MOOCs were intended to provide.

From responses posted in discussion forums, I understand many students took my MOOC for reasons we have come to expect: preparing for job interviews, going back to school, and also for having fun.

Some expressed irritation at the retention debate. For many students, life interfered with their original intention to be fully engaged while the class was running, so they downloaded videos, notes, and homework sets to be looked at later.

But then there was another, smaller group—high school students who took my MOOC in order to get a glimpse of university life.

My MOOC is mathematically intensive for a first-year undergraduate course and challenges our Northwestern students.  High school students generally do not have the technical background to take the course, so navigating the entire class is an accomplishment.

Yet, more than 10 percent of the students who took the final exam were in high school. Notably, some of them were in vocational technology programs in their high schools. And one group of high school students enrolled in Chicago Public Schools took the class as part of an engineering club.

One of those students—a talented, naturally gifted student coming from a low-income family, faced with substantial environmental and social obstacles that have interfered with traditional academic success—applied to Northwestern as a result. I am confident that without the MOOC, he would have thought Northwestern and other top institutions were out of his reach for a college experience.

Since the founding of Coursera in 2011 and EdX in 2012, MOOCs were intended to expand access to non-traditional students, and certainly getting high school students to apply to the university is a start.

But challenges remain for non-traditional students to have access to online courses. MOOC students need to have access to broadband Internet—reliably and during non-school hours. Not all public libraries offer this and not every home has it, even though many high school students have access to wireless Internet through their cell phones.

President Barack Obama’s plans for mobile broadband may address this gap, particularly combined with efforts like those of Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel.

Moving forward, MOOCs need to be designed for mobile devices. And the content needs to be reliable on mobile technology. Even with reliable Internet access, other costs can arise.

My course had free course notes, but included three at-home experiments (that all had to be completed for “Distinction”). Two could be completed for free with common household goods, but one required purchasing roughly $30 in materials. For many households, $30 is in the financial noise, but for some, $30 could be a significant burden.

What is more, even when a great student has access to content, is engaged by it, and applies for admission as a result, it is not clear that admissions policies at elite schools will be able to respond to performance in a MOOC. The talents needed for my MOOC—and my more traditional Northwestern classroom—are not necessarily the same as those needed for standardized tests, and this may lead to students who would excel in the classroom not necessarily being admitted.

Implicit in John Hennessy’s comments is the idea that a MOOC should deliver classroom content online as effectively as in person, thereby expanding access to the level of rigorous study a student at Stanford enjoys.

While we can debate whether or not online education competes with residential experiences of a traditional campus, there is no question in my mind that MOOCs are about access.

They are as much about higher education’s access to students as they are about students’ access to higher education.

Even if a MOOC only finds and encourages a handful of bright and disciplined students who would have otherwise never gone to university, MOOCs have value. If 10,000 others incidentally get value out of MOOCs, so much the better.

Todd David Murphey
Todd Murphey is an associate professor of Mechanical Engineering at Northwestern University, where he does research in robotics. He is the recipient of a National Science Foundation CAREER award and a member of the 2014-2015 DARPA/IDA Defense Science Study Group. His research has been featured at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.