Picture of Katie Kormanik

Katie Kormanik

You may have heard of a new development in higher education: MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are challenging traditional notions of higher education. Allowing students to work at any time, any place, and any pace, MOOCs are free and are open to anyone. This is why they’re massive, often enrolling tens of thousands of students. This revolutionary medium of higher education may shift the entire paradigm underlying how education is delivered.

So far MOOCs have been an exploration of unknown territory, pushing the frontiers of how we teach and learn. A new pilot program between San José State University (SJSU) and Udacity, one of the leading MOOC providers, aims to determine the effectiveness of three specially designed MOOCs compared to the university’s traditional classes. Anyone may enroll for free, but only 100 students may take the MOOCs for credit for this initial round. This number includes SJSU students as well as non-matriculated students – with priority for the non-matriculated enrollment slots given to high school students, wait-listed community college students and veterans.

The format of MOOCs makes them especially effective for teaching statistics. I have been working closely with SJSU professors Ron Rogers and Sean Laraway, who determine and supervise course content, to develop Udacity’s statistics class. This experience has made me acutely aware of ways in which an online statistics class can be superior to a traditional one, and we are taking advantage of these differences in teaching the course:

  • Interesting data can easily be shared online for students to analyze in spreadsheets. (Use of basic analysis software such as spreadsheets is not only essential in today’s world, but also promotes algebraic thinking.) If data were presented in a traditional textbook, students would have to manually input each value onto their computer or graphing utility. This would be tedious with real-life data, which often have hundreds of values. The ultimate goal is for students to have a strong foundation in statistical thinking and to be able to conduct basic statistics-based research. The best way to do this is by analyzing real data.
  • Simulations and applets can help visualize complex statistical concepts, making it easier for students to understand them. These are readily accessed online.
  • Polls given to students throughout the course can allow students to analyze their own data. Since each MOOC has thousands of students, the sample size is massive. We use Google Forms to administer these polls, and results automatically appear in shared spreadsheets as soon as students input their responses. This is instant data on anything, any time, anywhere, which students can view in real time.
  • MOOC lessons are prerecorded so students can go over a lesson as many times as necessary to understand the concepts – especially important for statistics, a subject many people find intimidating. And unlike in a traditional class, MOOC instructors need not worry about spending time repeating or reviewing concepts since students can replay previous videos at their leisure.

Many people still doubt that online education can equip students with skills and knowledge as well as or better than traditional in-person schooling, especially in the absence of direct student-instructor interaction. However, “interaction” takes many forms. MOOCs provide constant quizzes, which keep students thinking; instant feedback, so students know immediately if they understand the material; dynamic visuals, keeping students engaged; guest lecturers (via video); and the ability to collaborate online with thousands of peers, some of whom may choose to meet in person to learn the material. Students can ask questions about the coursework on Udacity’s online forum, and popular questions will be answered in supplemental videos. SJSU students taking the course for credit also have direct contact with the SJSU professors and myself, as well as Udacity staff who are available 24/7.

In general, for-credit MOOCs bring a whole new level of flexibility into education, especially for students who can’t fit an in-person class into their schedule; who do not have the necessary background knowledge to take a class required for their degree; or who failed the intro course and, without the online option, would be forced to wait a year to retake it.

The SJSU-Udacity pilot statistics course began last week with more than 3,000 students registered. In regular MOOCs, around 5 to 10 percent complete the courses (this still equates to tens of thousands of students earning certificates for completing popular MOOCs like Udacity’s Computer Science 101, but this percentage does not include the additional tens of thousands who benefited from pieces of the course and who were not intent on completing the whole thing).

With this pilot program, we hope that completion rates will be equal to or better than those of the in-person versions of these courses. We will also analyze and compare student performance on the exams, which are identical to those taken by traditional in-class students. We are continuously improving the courses as we receive feedback, but we still have a long way to go before we can judge their effectiveness with certainty. This will be a powerful learning experience for everyone involved.


Katie Kormanik is a math education specialist at Udacity, an organization with a mission to provide high-quality, low-cost university courses online, and a mathematics education research consultant for Math inquiries Project, a non-profit that focuses on Algebra education. Katie graduated from the University of Utah in 2010 with bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and economics, and received her master’s degree in International Comparative Education from Stanford University. Follow her on Twitter (@KatieKormanik) and read her blog at http://turnthewheel.wordpress.com.

Filed under: Commentary, Featured, K-12 Reform, Online Learning, Technology

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  1. Comparing the completion rate of the MOOC course to the in-person course is both unfair and unscientific, given the above explanation regarding to whom the online course is limited. They are not the same populations.

    The bigger question is “why draw the comparison at all?” It was rightly pointed out that some learning takes place even if one does not complete. This is a different model attracting different people. If completion rate is deemed important (although that argument has not been fully made), then MOOCs should be free to develop their own goals and standards of success. I would argue that this should include the recognition that some learning is better than none at all, i.e., it’s okay to start and not finish; and that a broader population, including those otherwise not college-bound, invaribly means more non-completers.

    Comparing the completion rate of MOOC courses to traditional face-to-face courses is like comparing the automobile to the horse. It’s an entirely different mode of intellectual transportation.

    1. Thank you for your comment Dr. Christine Jax. I completely agree. As of now, it’s difficult to establish a metric for judging the success of MOOCs. But certainly, the completion rate is not a good indicator since so many students enroll in the first place. Such a metric is a work in progress.

  2. John Fensterwald says:

    Stay tuned, el: Gov. Brown is proposing that K-12 move into the area of asynchronous learning (taking online courses 24/7); his trailer bill includes some information about this. I believe it initially will be geared toward districts and charter schools that want to offer courses. I plan to follow up.

    1. el says:

      Thanks, John. Our district is very interested in using this concept with students when it is the right fit for them; our largest obstacle seems to be in finding quality, accredited content that engages the kids.

  3. el says:

    I am taking a Coursera course right now; it is fun and interesting, and I see a lot of potential for these kinds of courses. One path that seems educationally valuable could be for independent/self-starter high school students to be able to take these courses as an option, supervised by a credentialed teacher at their high school, and be able to get credit for them. It opens up options for interesting electives beyond what the local high school can offer, especially smaller high schools.

    Can someone tell me more about the legal/regulatory framework for that kind of arrangement? It seems to me, for example, that if a student took a math class from a UC Riverside Coursera course, even if supervised by a local math teacher who assigned the actual final grade, that it wouldn’t count as A-G because it would not have stepped through the approval process. Is that correct? And if so, is that what we want, and if not, what can we do to change it?

    One of the downsides is that these courses are enrolling hundreds of thousands of students (which is curious and somewhat inexplicable to me, but there you go) and I think this is really too big for there to be meaningful interactions even between students. Building a community that size overnight for a short time frame doesn’t give people a chance to take the measure of any other student, and the poor TAs are overwhelmed trying to keep up even with questions marked explicitly for them.

    For older students like me interested in some lifelong learning, they’re fabulous.