The Debate over Massive Open Online Courses

Todd  Murphey Posted on October 3, 2013 by Todd Murphey

In 2009 I participated in the first NAE FOEE meeting and met other engineering faculty also interested in innovative classroom teaching. Even in 2009, I would say that innovation in the classroom was only a priority nationally insofar as it contributed to the smooth running of campus life. This may have even been true for me---teaching badly is more exhausting than teaching well, and I found that small investments in good teaching made junior faculty life easier.

During that FOEE meeting we learned about new assessment strategies and heard from engineering education pioneers about integrated learning approaches that, at least in some cases, lead to demonstrably better learning outcomes. After the meeting, I took what I had learned (often informally from other participants) and used new approaches in my own classroom. And then the MOOCs came.

MOOCs, the not-so-affectionate acronym for Massive Open Online Courses, have changed the higher education debate even if they have not changed higher education. As evidence of this statement, state legislatures are considering requiring state universities to accept online courses as equivalent substitutes for in-classroom learning.

Students from all backgrounds are taking advantage of online learning in both formal settings (e.g., for their jobs) and informal settings (e.g., for their own intellectual satisfaction). And many see online learning as a way of controlling the cost of higher education. Because of all these factors, and because I was---and continue to be---uncertain about the role of online learning in engineering education, I decided to run an online course based on an introductory engineering course I teach at Northwestern. It is a Coursera class titled "Everything is the Same: Modeling Engineered Systems" (EITS) and covers basic modeling of mechanical, electrical, and chemical systems. It does this by starting with the definition of the derivative and, through 24 lectures averaging 6.5 minutes each, ending with the time-varying wave equation. Along the way we see Newton's laws, superposition, Kirchoff's laws, convolution, and the time-varying heat equation. It is challenging as a result. The class has just started a week ago as of this writing, and has almost 18,000 enrolled, ranging from high school to postgraduate students. We have over 1000 students who claim to be ages 0-10. I am also using the class in my Northwestern class.

Interestingly, running the class is not a particularly big time commitment, but creating it is. I spent about 100 hours over two weeks scripting lectures and filming lectures. An undergraduate who took the class EITS is based on helped edit the scripts for continuity and then helped throughout the filming process, often catching mistakes that, while not a problem in the classroom, are not to be immortalized on film. Once filming was done---no easy task, with us eventually refilming the first two lectures to get rid of the addict-in-a-cage sensation that came from watching me nervously speak---we set about writing homework problems and exercises. We had a high school student go through all the material online to make sure the material was feasible. And then we went through it again ourselves. And with all this, there are still day-to-day problems as the class runs. But we have students and many of them seem pleased with the content; we had almost no negative comments in the first week. So what is it they find valuable about their experience?

What is the value of online learning? Certainly my students at Northwestern are getting a tremendous amount out of the online course, even if the online forum makes them uncomfortable. But what is the value to the online students who do not get to be in the room with the instructor? For the students with degrees, perhaps the class helps synthesize their knowledge in a way they were unprepared for when in school. For the high school students taking the class---with an in-person teacher with a calculus background---perhaps the class helps them see the use of calculus in the real world. But the reality is that we don't know the value of online learning, and are unlikely to know its value any time soon. Online assessment tools are inadequate to measure the breadth of this new online question, because no one knows what the goal is. Should MOOCs replace college classes? Should MOOCs serve as recruitment? Should MOOCs replace the SAT and other standardized testing? Should MOOCs be fun? Should they be challenging? Every online class has a different answer to these questions implicit in its design. I have my own feelings about these questions, but I think for now we should acknowledge they are open questions, and that the FOEE meeting is a perfect venue to discuss them.

If you're interested in EITS, go to If you're interested in my experience as I teach it, see twitter: @todd_murphey.

Todd Murphey
Northwestern University

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