More MOOCs Going Project-Based

Ever since Coursera-type MOOCs (as opposed to the original cMOOCs from 2008) turned two last spring, we’ve seen a rush of innovation in the courses, greatly extending what many people thought were the limits of online education.

Earlier this year, we saw science experiments moving online, as well as personalized one-on-one learning. Moocdemic combined a MOOC with a massive multiplayer online game, and Trauma! took a “Netflix approach,” splitting a MOOC into 10 one-week mini-courses.

The newest area emerging now is project-based courses. In the early days of MOOCs, most assessments were machine-graded multiple-choice tests. While programming courses used more practical assessments (i.e., machine-graded coding problems), most other courses focused on theory rather than the application of knowledge.

But that is changing. All of Coursera’s Specializations culminate in a capstone project, and for a new Educational Technology XSeries that just started this month on edX, all of the courses are project based. The XSeries focuses on game design. According to MIT’s Education Arcade website, “each of the courses is project-based, incorporates collaborative group as well as individual work, self-assessment as well as peer review, and concludes with a culminating project.” Students in the second course (which started today) will develop paper and digital prototypes for an educational game as well as engage in design iteration and user testing.

Project-based work, which results in students having a digital portfolio, is the next step in legitimizing MOOCs in the eyes of employers. Earning a certificate of completing from a MOOC doesn’t tell employers any more about what people know and can do than taking a face-to-face course, but projects can be clear demonstrations of learners’ knowledge and skills and they could pave the way for MOOCs to play a role in new efforts toward competency-based learning.

If you’ve taken any project-based MOOCs, I’d love to hear what you thought about them. Leave your impressions in the comments.

MOOCs Foster Innovation Through Diversity

I’ve noted before a significant shift in the MOOC commentary—from arguments about whether MOOCs are good or bad to a recognition that they are here to stay (at least for now). This has led to some more productive discussions about how best to use them, for example, a recent article in which Tata Interactive Systems’ Sahana Chattopadhyay suggests that precisely because they are open, MOOCs can forge diversity and innovation.

Chattopadhyay suggests that MOOCs can create diverse communities that are simply not possible in other forms of learning. And indeed, that is what has happened. Pick any MOOC and you will likely find a student group made up of people from different countries, different cultures, different fields, and different educational backgrounds. You will find students who didn’t graduate from high school right along with students who have master’s degrees, students with intensive training in the topic along with students who have never studied it before.

These aren’t groups that co-mingle much in the halls of traditional higher education institutions, and that’s a good thing.

Chattopadhyay writes: “Unlike universities where strict entrance criteria filter out aspiring students, MOOCs do not have such [a] filtering mechanism. Moreover, because the filtering mechanism in most universities operate at a cognitive level, they automatically filter out learners with different abilities, thus moving a step closer to removing diversity—maybe not of color, race, or religion—but of thought.”

When we talk about diversity in education, the focus is usually on more external aspects of diversity. But for innovation to happen, what we really need is this diversity of thought. David Burkus wrote earlier this year in Forbes about why innovation needs outsiders. It all boils down to this: people who are experts in a field tend to be somewhat myopic; they are unable to look at a problem with new eyes. Outsiders, however, don’t have enough expertise to know what isn’t supposed to work, so they are able to propose fresh solutions.

Innovation is the key to success today—for communities, schools, companies, and so on. As Chattopadhyay says, it’s time to shift our focus away from how MOOCs can benefit people individually and onto how we can harness the collective power of the diverse individuals the courses bring together.

Why MOOCs for High School Will Benefit Everybody

Last month, edX launched its new high school initiative: 27 MOOCs on topics ranging from math and science to English and history, AP courses, and even a course on how to navigate the college admissions process. The first three courses are set to start next week, with many more beginning in January. This is a very positive step, not only for MOOCs, but for everyone involved. Here is how MOOCs for high school can benefit everybody.


Students are obviously getting the biggest benefit from the initiative. Many will have the opportunity to take courses that their high schools don’t offer, like AP courses, which in recent years have been the victims of budget cuts in many districts. MOOCs will also allow them to test out college-level courses and boost their college readiness so that they can get more mileage out of their freshman year. The courses will also give students some experience learning online, which will be valuable even if they attend a traditional residential college program.


Parents have something to gain here, too. Good AP scores mean students can test out of required courses. At many schools, that means they may be able to advance their semester standing and perhaps graduate earlier, which can lighten the financial burden for parents.

High schools

Many high schools can offer courses they couldn’t before, not only AP, but other courses as well, for example, Introduction to Engineering and Engineering Mathematics. MOOCs also provide another option for remedial courses, like Introduction to Algebra.


Offering MOOCs to high school students can help colleges both identify potential applicants and ensure that those applicants are prepared for college-level work, thus, potentially decreasing the amount of remediation that needs to be done at the post-secondary level.


While all of the MOOCs in the high school initiative are currently focused on preparing students for college, I can imagine a time when more vocational courses might be offered. This would be a way for students to get job skills while still in high school.

What other benefits can be gained from designing MOOCs for high school students?

Predicting Who Drops Out of MOOCs

Lately researchers have been using edX data to really delve into exactly what happens in MOOCs. For example, just a couple of weeks ago, researchers discovered (to the surprise of many) that no matter where they start from in terms of previous formal education, MOOC students all show relatively equal learning gains.

In a new study, MIT researchers Kalyan Veeramachaneni and Una-May O’Reilly explore what type of students are most likely drop out of MOOCs, using machine learning models to predict dropout behavior.

The researchers divided students from the first edX course, Circuits and Electronics, into five groups:

•  No attempts: never submitted an assignment
•  Discussion generators: participated in forums
•  Content generators: edited wikis
•  Fully collaborative: both participated in forums and edited wikis
•  Passive collaborator: submitted assignments, but didn’t participate in forums or edit wikis

For the study, they attempted to predict which students out of the four active cohorts (excluding “No attempts”) would drop out on a week-by-week basis.

Here’s what they found:

•  After the first week, they were able to predict drop outs pretty well.
•  The most influential predictor was the “pre-deadline submission time,” which is the amount of time between when a student starts to work on the weekly problem set and when the assignment is due.
•  A student’s average number of weekly submissions relative to other students is a good predictor of whether the student will stay in the course, as is the lab grade each week and the average length of discussion posts.
•  For each week, accurate predictions can be made based on data from the previous four weeks. It is easy to predict who will drop out one week in advance.

The researchers are continuing to investigate how this information might be used to help students at risk of dropping out. In the meantime, the main suggestion that jumps out is encouraging the students to start assignments further in advance of the deadline, perhaps by sending emails reminding them that assignments are coming up and estimating how long each assignment might take.

Anything else you might suggest based on the results of this study?

MOOCs and MBAs [video]

On this blog, we’ve explored extensively the idea that business schools in particular are ripe for MOOC disruption.

I recently came upon this video interview with Karl Ulrich and Christian Terwiesch, both professors at the Wharton School. They discuss why MBAs are especially susceptible to disruption, the new ways people are interacting with technology, and how MOOCs present both opportunities and threats for business schools.

The video is a bit long (just over 30 minutes), but it is worth a watch. Also, visit YouTube to check out other videos on the Knowledge@Wharton channel. Here is a previous post about Ulrich and Terwiesch’s research: Do MOOCs spell the end of business schools?

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