Lectures on Your Laptop

by David J. Craig Published Fall 2014
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Three years ago, nobody outside a small circle of distance-learning experts had ever heard of MOOCs.

Since then, these “massive open online courses” have shaken up the world of higher education, removing barriers to access and provoking intense debate about the promise and limitations of distance learning.

An estimated fifteen million people globally have enrolled in one of these free video-based Internet courses, which are, as their name suggests, massive in size and open to anybody, regardless of his or her academic background. Most MOOCs are produced by elite universities as a way to showcase their best teachers and are hosted by outside Web companies that agree to share any revenue they generate — such as by selling certificates to students who complete them. But few MOOCs have generated enough money for universities to even recoup the cost of making them, in part because they have low completion rates and because the value of the certificates is unclear.

“The main reason you create MOOCs is to enable faculty to share knowledge with people who might have no other way of accessing it,” says David Madigan, the University’s executive vice president and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “That’s front and center. It’s part of our service mission. But there are side benefits. We’ve found that some people who take our MOOCs end up enrolling in Columbia degree programs, for instance. There’s also the fact that whenever you experiment with new methods of teaching, you stimulate creative thinking and introspection among the faculty about how they might improve the learning experiences of all of our students — whether on campus or online.”

About a dozen Columbia professors have made MOOCs so far. In addition to historian Eric Foner, they include economist Jeffrey Sachs, physicist Brian Greene, virologist Vincent Racaniello, and computer scientist Michael Collins. Most of these MOOCs have been produced in-house by the University at a cost of anywhere from $10,000 to $150,000 apiece. (A few MOOCs starring Greene have been produced and paid for by his own World Science Festival.) The courses have provided free instruction to some 650,000 people around the world, with less than 5 percent of them finishing a course — a completion rate that may sound deflating but is in line with industry trends.

“Naturally, since MOOCs are free, a lot of people will try out a course and then opt out if they decide it’s not for them,” says Maurice Matiz, the director of the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, which produces the University’s MOOCs.

According to Madigan, the University is likely to continue producing a “moderate number” of MOOCs each semester for the foreseeable future. This is among the recommendations soon to be issued by a faculty task force on online education that Columbia convened last year and that Madigan chairs; the task force is now preparing a full report to be released this fall.

“Some universities are producing tons of these courses, and others none at all,” he says. “Columbia is treading a middle ground. We want to be selective, developing MOOCs for faculty who are at the very top of their fields and also exceptional teachers. That’s the sweet spot, when you’re offering the world something that’s totally unique.”

Learn more about Columbia’s MOOCs and other online programs at online.columbia.edu.

Read the related article about Professor Eric Foner in The Professor's Last Stand: http://magazine.columbia.edu/features/fall-2014/professors-last-stand


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