MOOCs Provide Unprecedented Insight Into How Students Learn

Stanford's Sebastian Thrun, one of the founders of the massive open online course (MOOC) movement, shook up the education world with a recent interview in which he suggested that the much-touted MOOCs may not be living up to their hype.

Likely somewhere between the frenzy over their launch and the inevitable deflation of expectations lies the value. Do MOOCs spell the end of college as we know it, or are they its best hope for the future? We don't yet know how the potential of MOOCs will be realized. But MOOCs have already succeeded in bringing new energy to the conversation about the role of higher education. And they are providing colleges and universities with the opportunity to gain unprecedented insight into how students learn.

MOOCs burst onto the scene at a time when higher education is under intense scrutiny -- from its cost structure and organization to its very purpose. Colleges and universities are focused like never before on how to tailor education to individual learning styles, needs and preferences. Do students learn best through face-to-face learning on campus? "Flipped" classrooms, where students watch lectures at home, then work with teachers in class? Blended online and in-person courses? Completely online? With the majority of undergraduates no longer fitting the traditional 18- to 21-year-old residential model, college can mean something very different to different students.

In some ways, MOOCs are nothing new. Already today, you can be a soldier in Iraq and get a full degree at Penn State through its online World Campus. But with thousands of students enrolled in individual courses, MOOCs are becoming an incomparable laboratory on student learning. The sheer volume of students -- more than 330,000 students enrolled in Penn State's first five MOOCs and more than five million in Coursera ­­courses overall -- offers higher education tremendous research and evaluation opportunities, and opens the door for collaboration, both within and outside the university.

MOOCs give educators a way to test new methods of teaching and learning analytics that can improve student learning. Already, many faculty are incorporating what they are learning from teaching MOOCs into their traditional face-to-face instruction. We are using the data from our initial offering of MOOCs to investigate the nuances of course persistence and completion, experiment with ways to measure learning outcomes such as peer-to-peer assessment, and discover and design new low-cost delivery models. Our faculty is also looking at the benefits to participants from developing countries and the phenomenon of MOOC participants spontaneously coming together in small groups around the world.

This increased focus on student learning may well be a major catalyst for change. Instead of trying to fit students into a model that's been around for centuries, educators are focusing more than ever on what works best for students. For example, there is an emerging consideration of competency-based learning as an alternative to the traditional four-year model of college. We may see significant changes in the role of faculty and to the basic structure of colleges and universities.

We will continue to explore MOOCs, as well as other permutations such as MOCCs -- massive online credit courses. It's pioneering work. Where these newcomers are today is not where they will be tomorrow. But at the very least, they have widened the aperture for us to think about ways to use technology to improve student learning and success. There's a lot of promise there.