What Massive Online Courses Do Well, and Where They Falter

The Beatles (from left), Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, and John Lennon, perform for the CBS "Ed Sullivan Show" in New York on Feb. 9, 1964 Photograph by Dan Grossi/AP Photo

For many consumers, shopping online has become a substitute for visiting a brick-and-mortar store. Will the same soon be true for college? Do Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) pose a similar threat?

Over the past year at the University of Rochester, we have taught this type of online course in partnership with Coursera. What we discovered suggests—at least for now—that these virtual courses complement, not replace, the traditional campus experience.

Before you dismiss this as just another organization blind to the inevitable march of digital progress, let’s not forget that universities are remarkable for their durability over the past millennium. In the U.S. alone, universities generate $400 billion annually in revenue—equal to the combined sales of Amazon, Apple, EBay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo!, none of which is likely to be around a century from now.

Here’s what we have learned. Perhaps the chief benefit of MOOCs is simply the visibility it provides to help reach new customers, untethered from geographic restrictions. While enrolling in these online classes through Coursera involves less of a commitment than enrolling in (and paying for) an on-campus course, we have had more than 20 times more students sign up for our online courses than are taking classes in person. Of our 200,000-plus virtual enrollees, who hail from 150 different countries, 44 percent never heard of us, while another 52 percent had, but that was the extent of their connection to us.

Enrollment in a MOOC is not equivalent to taking a traditional on-campus course. It is more analogous to bookmarking a Web page.

Beyond visibility, online learning has sharpened our teaching skills. Each week in our Microeconomics course we record eight to 12 segments, from 4 to 12 minutes in length. Having to condense material makes you think hard about the most concise way to present a concept. The ability to reshoot any given segment ensures staying current while providing the means to raise one’s game constantly as a teacher. Furthermore, 20,000-plus students viewing one’s videos online and raising questions through discussion forums serve as a potent force to promote the accuracy and quality of one’s material.

This online classroom can also improve student learning. Among our international students for whom English is a second language, many find the opportunity to review video material multiple times to be quite valuable. Both domestic and international students report that the closed-captioning feature associated with the videos is especially beneficial.

Some have criticized MOOCs for insufficient interaction, low completion rates (95 percent of students who enrolled in EdX, Harvard’s, and MIT’s online education platforms dropped out), and uncertain learning outcomes. Our research, however, offers some caveats and suggests that some observers may be using 20th century metrics to measure a 21st century experience. Students who want to join one of our MOOCs simply click on “Join for Free” button to become part of the class.

Intention and commitment are also important; of the active students, approximately 30 percent stated that they never planned to complete the course. In addition, 84 percent of our students were older than 22, with the increased chance that they have family obligations and/or job responsibilities that divert their time and attention from the courses.

So far we are pleased with our MOOC experiment. More than 12,000 “consumers” have completed our courses. The class with the highest completion rate is Professor John Covach’s “History of Rock.” The 50th year anniversary of the Beatles appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show seems to have given his offerings an edge over the timeless insights of microeconomics, astrophysics, and sound-system engineering that our other courses provide. Distance learners have downloaded more than 1 million of Professor Covach’s video lectures.

The opportunity to connect so many new people to a high-quality academic experience has been extraordinary. It cannot hurt us to have those people be more aware of what our university can offer.

To date, we have had four students from our Microeconomics course apply for admission to our traditional graduate degree programs at our Simon Business School. We plan to invite the top 100 online students from our MOOC, the Power of Markets, to our campus in June for review sessions followed by a proctored final exam and the chance to earn additional certification. We hope to encourage the best overall students, through scholarship support, to apply to Simon. (The top performer on the exam will be offered a full-tuition scholarship to a Simon graduate business program.)

Improvements do need to be made. To meet the demand of online learners who desire more face-to-face interaction, universities will need to develop hybrid models that combine online and in-person learning. We may also need more flexible schedules—say, three two-day, in-person sessions at the beginning, middle, and end of the semester, coupled with an online learning component along the way.

If they take such an approach, universities will have to decide how and whether to pre- and/or post-screen students, and if hybrid courses should count toward a non-degree certificate or a traditional degree.

Institutions of higher learning that fail to explore online opportunities do so at their own risk. Twenty-first century institutions of higher education cannot afford to leave 21st century learners behind.