Universities Draw Remote Learners with Massive Open Online Course Model

The use of Massive Online Open Courses, or MOOCs, swells during the pandemic as socially distant learners have fewer outside engagements. A decade after launching, these online teaching platforms have tapped into artificial intelligence, data mining, and virtual teaching assistants to strengthen course content and improve the student experience.


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Image credit: Coursera

When the pandemic forced students home in March 2020, universities scrambled to find ways to present material to those students learning online. Using the summer to prepare, by the fall universities had pivoted to Zoom-based instruction that combined mass lectures and smaller online breakout rooms for discussion. That approach remains in place for most universities in the spring term as well.

Shifting an in-person class to an online format can be challenging for students and faculty. With the vast majority of students logging in to class, administrators in the hallowed halls of higher educational institutions would be wise to learn from their online-only counterparts.

One place to start is to consider Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). EdX, created by MIT and Harvard, along with Coursera and Udacity, developed by Stanford, are the most popular online learning networks of MOOCs. Initially launched by universities as a way to bring top instruction to students anywhere in the world, MOOCs didn’t take off as predicted. After nearly a decade, they have adapted and become more relevant.

lLaptop, large screen, video, and other distance learning online resources

Image credit: edX, the MITx filming facilities

Technology-driven Improvements

Much of this growth can be attributed to technology: cloud-based computing has become more ubiquitous and the use of artificial intelligence and data mining technologies enabled data-driven improvements to courses. MOOC platforms use machine learning algorithms to grade assignments, adapt content, and deliver assessments.

The very fact that these classes are offered online means that they can provide a wealth of information about how the classes are taken. Millions of students have taken free and paid classes, providing researchers with a vast base for data mining. Online administrators can determine who is most likely to drop a class, and when, and devote more resources to long-term students. Using AI and data mining, online course creators can assess student video viewing patterns, label and index course topics to improve navigation, and develop cheat-detection algorithms.

With a better understanding of how classes are taken, AI allows MOOC participants to develop personalized learning paths for student goals. It also provides insight into how students interact with MOOCs and where to improve student engagement. Four years ago, the Georgia Institute of Technology introduced Jill Watson, an AI-based teaching assistant for its MOOC courses. The virtual TA builds a custom repository of information for each course and answers student questions anytime.

In the MOOC

While MOOCs generally are not a substitute for undergraduate learning, some universities offer MOOC-based graduate programs at a fraction of the cost of in-person learning. The University of Illinois offers several master’s degree programs through Coursera; students can earn a master’s degree in computer science for $21,500, or an MBA for less than $22,000. Georgia Tech, via Udacity, offers an Online Master of Science in Computer Science for about $6,600. Arizona State, University of Colorado Boulder, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Michigan also offer MOOC-based advanced degrees.

The pandemic has drastically increased MOOC-based learning as well. Social distancing requirements forced learning online, and pandemic restrictions wiped clear many outside activities leaving people with more time to pursue advanced degrees. By early April 2020, Coursera enrollments skyrocketed 644 percent, with more than 10 million course enrollments in one month alone and 5 million new student registrations.

Some predict the pandemic will be the tipping point that makes career-focused online learning more competitive and mainstream. Universities will have to shore up their digital offerings for MOOCs to fully take hold. The Harvard Business Review indicated that education lags behind other industries in terms of digitalization; in fact, less than 5 percent of college budgets are earmarked for IT spending. 

With the proven viability of online learning, educational institutions are ripe for continued technology infrastructure upgrades, which will be a boon for channel partners in that space.

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