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Massive Open Online Courses Help Make STEM Education More Accessible, But Do They Work for All Students?


Anant Agarwal, president of edX, speaking at the AAAS 2013 S&T Forum. | Credit: AAAS/Robert Beets

Amid continuing controversy about massive open online courses, or “MOOCs,” a $60 million Web site called edX, established by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), will debut 1 June as a freely available open-source platform for such courses.


The first electronic-circuits course to be offered on the edX platform drew an initial pool of 155,000 students, and 7,157 of them received a completion certificate. “I would have to teach at MIT for 10 years before I could graduate that many students out of my class,” said Anant Agarwal, president of edX and a professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Making higher education more accessible to students around the world, and gathering useful data on how they learn about science and technology, are primary goals for edX, whose courses are free to students.

Compared with traditional lectures, well-designed online courses can keep students more engaged, and that helps them learn better, said Agarwal, who took part in a 3 May panel on higher education in science, technology, education and math (STEM) during the 38th annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy. Courses on edX leverage a “learning sequence” that lets students pause, rewind, or even mute their professor online, he noted. Auto-graded online exercises provide students with instant feedback, too, thereby encouraging them to try again for the correct answer.

Agarwal acknowledged critics who have argued that MOOCs are being oversold as a miraculous educational solution for everyone. But, he added, “I think hype is a good thing” for STEM higher education.

While MOOCs show promise for many students, research is needed to better understand how such courses work, and their limitations, said Wendy Newstetter, director of Educational Research and Innovation at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She noted that many different STEM higher-education models have emerged, including self-directed MOOCs, computer-mediated versions of such courses, and “flipped” classes, in which students solve real-world problems, guided by the instructor, after reviewing preliminary background information. Yet, at a recent major educational research conference, Newstetter said, she found only one symposium on MOOCs.

In any learning environment, students should gain “transferable knowledge” that can be applied in many contexts, said Newstetter, citing a 2012 National Academies’ report on Education for Life and Work. Specifically, she said, researcher James Pellegrino has identified an array of cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal skills that all students need in order to succeed. How can the array of new online learning models help students achieve those goals?

Wendy Newstetter, left, with Anant Agarwal, fielding a question from the audience. | Credit: AAAS

Newstetter proposed a series of questions that should be answered by research. Educators need to know, for example, under what conditions technology-mediated experiences can result in enhanced learning competencies, she said. Do MOOCs effectively encourage students to develop perseverance, self-regulation and other such skills? Is knowledge gained in a MOOC “transferable,” so that what students learn can help them solve problems in other contexts? How can MOOCs be enhanced to promote interpersonal skills, and what intrapersonal attributes are needed for optimal learning in MOOCs?

Some observers have suggested that MOOCs tend to work best for more affluent students, Newstetter noted. She mentioned the 2013 William D. Carey lecture, presented at the AAAS Forum by Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who focused on strategies for helping underrepresented minorities succeed in science fields. “What he described was high-contact, intensive mentoring,” she pointed out.

Another speaker, Kevin Werbach, associate professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at The Wharton School, recalled his experience teaching a MOOC for 85,000 students as a positive one. “It was the most extraordinary teaching experience in my life, and in many ways, the most extraordinary learning experience in my life,” he said.

Yet, Werbach acknowledged that mass-distribution learning opportunities raise important questions, and he cited the 29 April letter by a group of professors at San José State University, who protested their institution’s contract with edX. “Look at it not because I necessarily think they’re right,” Werbach told the AAAS audience, “but because they are asking a lot of the right questions.”

The San José State professors noted that online courses “provide the opportunity to listen to lectures for a second or third time and enable class discussion sessions outside the usual constraints of time and space.” But they emphasized that videos and other online content should not be considered a substitute for one-on-one interactions with teachers who are “passionate, engaged and current on the topic.” The professors also expressed concerns about implementing the same “one-size-fits-all” course at many different institutions, and they contended that MOOCs are a thinly veiled money-saving strategy, rather than a genuine effort to improve education.

Werbach said that the “two polarized views on MOOCs”—suggesting they are either a perfect educational solution or a dire threat to the quality of higher education—are both incorrect, in his view.

Education is a lifelong, continuous process, he said, and with 200 million college-aged students worldwide, “the demand for knowledge is far greater than what we can provide.” Expanding the sphere of educational services will require experimentation, he added. Werbach noted further that educational institutions, from community colleges to large state universities, offer “bundled” services, and MOOCs are now one more option on the menu.


Kevin Werbach said teaching an 85,000-student MOOC was an extraordinary teaching and learning experience. | Credit: AAAS



Finally, he said, educators should understand that MOOCs may lower the price of education but not necessarily the true costs associated with thoughtfully developing and managing complex online courses. “You can’t just say, ‘Fifty students costs X, so 100 students is X times two.’” Seasoned professors will never be replaced by cheap online avatars, he said, in part because developing MOOCs is so time-intensive, sometimes requiring hundreds of hours of focused work.

Werbach took issue with Agarwal on one point: “There’s something dangerous about incentivizing faculty as rock stars,” he said, and MOOC instructors should not be encouraged to think of themselves as online celebrities.

Agarwal agreed that most academicians would be deeply uncomfortable with the trappings of celebrity. But, he added, “Kids need motivation” and inspiration to become teachers.

After their presentations, speakers fielded questions from the AAAS audience. One participant, noting that MOOCs seem to be most effective for “the already-educated upper-middle class student,” asked whether they work as well for those needing remedial help to achieve STEM competency.

Newstetter said that the Gates Foundation recently funded a number of efforts to better support at-risk students through enhanced online learning models. The results of those projects have not yet been reported, she said, but it seems clear that online courses need “some type of support structure—people who can serve as coaches or mentors.” Support strategies might range from machine-mediated systems that alert instructors when students have not logged on, to more personalized weekly calls from a designated coach, she said.

Since 1976, the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy has become a gold-standard event for those seeking timely insights into the U.S. federal R&D budget, policy, and higher-education issues likely to affect researchers in the coming year.