Free Online Courses Could Change Engineering Education

Massive open online courses spreading

30 November 2012

Have you always had a hankering to attend Harvard’s computer science classes but couldn’t afford the tuition? Do you want to take a course on machine learning at Stanford but can’t relocate to sunny California? Whether you live in New Delhi, New York, or Norway you can attend classes offered by prestigious engineering and other universities via the Internet for free through massive, open online courses, or MOOCs.

More and more research universities are opening up their computer science, math, electronics, and engineering courses to anyone from around the world. Princeton is the latest to get involved in the MOOC movement, according to a New York Times article published on 19 November. Others include the California Institute of Technology, Georgia Tech, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, MIT, the University of London, and the University of Toronto, to name just a few. These schools are offering their courses through the websites edX, Udacity, and Coursera.

MOOCs made headlines last year when Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor, attracted 160 000 students from 190 countries to a free online artificial intelligence course. This opened the floodgates for other elite universities to begin offering higher education to everyone. Thrun when off to start Udacity, a for-profit with no university affiliation. EdX is a non-profit joint venture of Harvard and MIT; and Coursera, also with Stanford roots, is a for-profit with more than 30 universities. The schools are leveraging their existing courses and using their own faculty to keep costs down. Udacity courses are designed and produced inhouse or with companies like Google and Microsoft.

The courses combine education, entertainment, and social networking. They are a crowd-sourced version of college—allowing large groups to collaborate and provide feedback. Classes run from a few weeks to several months. Professors who teach these classes use online lectures combined with short videos and embedded quizzes. Some include final projects and problem sets to solve. Among the lecturers who have taught MOOC courses are IEEE Fellows David Patterson, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley; and Nick McKeown, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, at Stanford. Patterson teaches software engineering and McKeown lectures on computer networking.

While the benefits of MOOCs are many—reducing the cost of higher education, eliminating the need for college loans, giving people in remote locations or the poor the ability to get a high-quality education, and letting students attend class at their convenience—they also present a host of challenges. Grading isn’t consistent, cheating is even more prevalent than in a typical classroom setting, and plagiarism is a big concern. Because courses are free and available worldwide, students can number in the tens of thousands and come from all walks of life. They can be retirees, people who want to make a career change, or just someone interested in the topic. That means students lack a common knowledge base and educational background.

And with such high numbers of students, how do you get the teacher’s attention? It’s easier in traditional colleges because they limit enrollment. According to a 4 November New York Times article, “The Year of the MOOC,” instructors are struggling with that. “What’s frustrating in a MOOC is the instructor is not as available because there are tens of thousands of others in the class,” said Ray Schroeder, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research, and Service at the University of Illinois, Springfield. How do you make the environment feel intimate? That’s what schools are trying to figure out.

The quality of lecturers can also vary. According to the article, some instructors are picked because they know how to teach in front of a camera, not because of their academic research credentials. David Stavens, who helped form Udacity, sees a day when MOOCs will disrupt how faculty are attracted, trained, and paid with the most popular “compensated like a TV actor or a movie actor.” He added that “students will want to learn from whoever is the best teacher.”

What do students get when they complete the class, beyond knowledge? Some programs offer credits while others are considering charging fees for certificates and proctored exams. The American Council on Education and Coursera, announced a pilot project in November to determine whether some free online courses should be eligible for credit. Next year the council will assess how much students who successfully complete Coursera MOOCs have learned. Students who do well and want academic credit could have to pay a fee to take an identity-verified, proctored exam. If the course is determined to be worthy of credit, students could pay for a transcript to submit to the college of their choice. The schools won’t be required to take those credits, but 2000 U.S. colleges and universities already accept similar transcripts for training courses offered by the military or by their employers.

Princeton’s provost, Christopher L. Eisgruber, told the New York Times that the university has no plans to offer credentials. “It’s terrific that we can put information online for people to share, but we don’t want to mislead them into thinking it’s the same as a Princeton course.”

Do you think MOOCs could lead to devaluing engineering higher education? Will they affect the quality of engineers or simply give more people the opportunity to pursue an engineering degree?

Lastly, if MOOCs aren’t for you, IEEE and its societies offer e-learning courses to members at a discount or for free from IEEE Xplore, with many awarding professional development hours or continuing-education credits.

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the bloggers and do not represent official positions of The Institute or IEEE.

Photo: iStockphoto

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

Learn More