Thoughts on MOOCs

Two researcher-professors from the traditional mold share their perceptions of and questions about online education with a particular emphasis on the growing number of science classes that are free and open to all.

Joseph Provost
Michael Pikaart

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology will host a session focused on online science instruction at its annual meeting in April in San Diego. The session, “Online Education and the Rise of MOOCs,” will be part of a symposium titled “21st-Century Approaches to Teaching and Communicating BMB.”
Conversations about best practices for online instruction and the changing definition of “student” are being had all over the world. So in the lead-up to the session on massive online open courses, we asked ASBMB members Joseph Provost of the University of San Diego and Michael J. Pikaart of Hope College in Holland, Mich., about the implications for brick-and-mortar colleges and universities and about the potential impact of MOOCs like those offered by Coursera, Udacity, edX and other providers. Their exchange has been edited for length, clarity and style.

Could you tell us how you integrate Web technologies in your traditional classrooms today?

Pikaart: From intro courses to upper-level classes, my institution uses a standard course-management system. I use it for class notes, homework, quizzes. Actually, being in the Midwest, we even had a couple snow days last semester, and I video’d myself giving the lecture I would have done in person and put it online for students to watch. Worked out pretty well, I thought.
Provost: I think we all try to draw on various online resources for students to look at macromolecule structures, read literature and search -omics-type data.

All MOOCs are taught entirely online, but they do come in numerous forms. To you, what is a MOOC?

Pikaart: “Open” means, well, the course is open to anybody as opposed to a typical college course that you have to go to and actually register for, usually as part of a degree program. “Massive” must just mean what is says ... and I guess you could have thousands of people taking an individual MOOC.
Provost: But “open,” I think, also implies free or at really minimal cost. Which is probably the thing that gives college administrators something to worry about — because, if people can just go online to learn, with anytime-anywhere convenience, why would they want to have to actually go to college to take classes and pay for it?
That sort of turns the whole idea of higher education on its head. For — what, 500 years? — universities and colleges have been places where learners and teachers come together to study and work, where knowledge is produced and communicated. I don’t know how a MOOC fits into that idea.

Some MOOCs offer certificates to formally recognize students’ completion of them, for whatever that’s worth. What are your thoughts on those? And what have you seen out there for those interested in biochemistry and molecular biology?

Provost: If I remember right, many provide individual course certificates. There is a growing number of comprehensive online degrees, although I haven’t been able to find any that are biochemistry or molecular biology degrees offered via MOOC. There seems to be quite a bit of diversity in approaches.
In one biochemistry MOOC course, the content is mostly links to material from other institutions like (the National Center for Biotechnology Information) and various universities. The University of New England has a medical-oriented biochemistry MOOC for preprofessional students and advertises a number of medical and physician-assistant programs that accept the course as credit.
I do find myself looking at and learning from some of the better MOOC offerings like the (Massachusetts Institute for Technology), Harvard (University) and (the University of California at Berkeley) courses and the material on iTunes. I guess caveat emptor is the best guidance now.

In your view, who might be best served by MOOCs?

Pikaart: There seems to be several audience markets for MOOCs. Certainly those looking for a topic or professional development on a targeted subject can find very interesting classes. Some focus on vocational training. Students and incumbent workers can find individual courses that they hope to use to increase flexibility and diversity in their education and to achieve their degree. I have sent students to MOOC sites to learn and review topics in all sorts of areas.
Provost: Me too. I even told my daughter, a sophomore chemistry and biochemistry major, to watch a few of these single-class MOOCs to help her studies ... One has to wonder: The diversity of MOOC offerings must create conflict for universities to decide how and which courses to accept for completion of their degrees. In fact, this also impacts the faculty who have students who may have taken a number of prerequisite offerings sitting in on their biochemistry or molecular biology courses.
Pikaart: I imagine the same thing will be seen in graduate and medical schools too.
Provost: Yeah. We, academia and the ASBMB, have an obligation to keep access to learning and help broaden the experience. I remember seeing many business and political leaders evangelize on how brick-and-mortar universities need to change the paradigm and reduce costs to make education affordable and more exciting. Some of this is certainly true. I wonder what my future biochemistry and molecular biology students will look like if things keep going on this way. At the same time, I wonder about the effectiveness of MOOCs to reach these goals.
Pikaart: I think a lot of people are wondering that same thing. The excitement about MOOCs of a couple years ago has been replaced by a cold, hard pessimism about their effectiveness. One of Udacity’s founders, Sebastian Thrun, who taught one of Udacity’s very first online courses in computer science, recently described a for-credit venture with San Jose State University as a “lousy product.”

So, going back to who is best served...

Pikaart: It seems it’s turning out that the people who are best served from learning via MOOCs are well-educated professionals, not the educational have-nots who might most benefit from readily available and low-cost courses.
When Udacity ran its first MOOCs out of Stanford (University), the courses on robots and artificial intelligence were taken by people who already had strong computer-science backgrounds. So for people who already have, as they say, “learned how to learn” and who maybe are looking at a MOOC as a way to further explore a topic they’re interested in or obtain specific professional training, the content-delivery system of a MOOC probably works quite well.
But what about all the things we do in the classes we teach beyond just conveying content? Things like encouraging the hesitant student — and reining in the overconfident! Like giving feedback and assessment on how our students are progressing and helping students place what they’re learning in the context of their life goals. I don’t know how those could happen in a MOOC.

Some MOOCs are offshoots of real, face-to-face classes. The students at the brick-and-mortar institution actually go to class and then do the online work with the MOOC enrollees. Are there other ways these worlds are intersecting?

Provost: I have seen a few cases where professors use the MOOC materials, mostly the video lectures, and adapt that material for their course as a sort of flipped classroom. One professor at a Florida school does that for biochemistry. Another instructor at Vanderbilt (University) wrote about his work doing the same for his classes. Sounds like a unique way to help students.
I guess that I am ambivalent. MOOCs and online teaching take away the small group and faculty engagement. And at the same time, I wonder if bringing science to more students using MOOCs is all that much different from when I was teaching huge numbers of students in a single class.

Are there any other aspects of all this that seriously concern you?

Pikaart: It might be pretty challenging for a student who earned a whole degree using MOOCs to get the kind of laboratory experience or research experience that a good biochem or molecular biology student should get.
Provost: I wonder the same thing. I would hate to drive over a bridge where the engineer learned how to design the bridge based on online courses only or be the patient of a surgeon taught medicine only by MOOC. Going on to a career at the bench at any level would be pretty concerning.
Pikaart: The economics of MOOCs aren’t obvious either. There are significant costs to create, host and maintain the site. Are the people asking to have access to free degrees willing to provide their services for free? I don’t recall seeing similar offerings by other professions or vocations.

Online education and the rise of the MOOC

When: 9:55 a.m. to 12:10 p.m. Monday, April 28
Where: San Diego Convention Center, Room 14B (Mezzanine Level)
MOOCing STEM courses: For what purpose and which Audiences? (Kenneth C. Green)
MOOCs for hard-to-find AP courses (Maria Klawe)
“Drugs and the Brain,” the MOOC (Henry A. Lester, California Institute of Technology)
Session chair: Fred Maxfield, Weill Cornell Medical College

Provost: It takes years and hard work to become a biochemist and more years of experience to become an effective teacher. Should I be expected to give all of my skills away for free? Would a plumber be expected to provide cheap or free services?
Pikaart: Yes, but we do have to think about how to manage the costs of higher education to keep things accessible. MOOCs and online learning certainly do this.
Provost: Agreed. I think there is a place for MOOCs, but in sciences like biochemistry and molecular biology in undergraduate, graduate and health professions schools, they have to be carefully considered.
MOOCs certainly have a place, and how they are bundled and how they can reshape teaching has real potential, but a free degree is debatable. I guess we should just see MOOCs as a resource — one more tool in our teaching toolbox, like textbooks. They are a resource to make teaching and learning more effective and efficient.