This massive open online course, or MOOC, offers the world a free sample of education from the elite public university that Thomas Jefferson founded. But it also reflects a broad push in academia to redefine the college classroom for students who pay tuition on campus.
Zelikow’s U-Va. students watch his lectures on their own time, freeing up precious classroom hours for in-depth discussion with a historian who has served in the upper echelons of U.S. government. This technique, known as flipping the classroom, is spreading in universities around the country as educators seek to harness technological advances to make undergraduate lecture courses less of a passive listening exercise and more of a dynamic give-and-take.
There is growing consensus that the classic college lecture, with a “sage on the stage” holding forth for an hour or more, too often delivers mediocre results. Students tune out. Professors get stale.
“Year after year, you’re walking into the same room, saying the same words,” said Stanford University computer scientist Andrew Ng. “Year after year, telling the same jokes. You start to wonder if this is how best to teach.”
Dissatisfaction with live lectures helped drive Ng and Stanford colleague Daphne Koller to put course materials online. The success of those experiments led them last year to launch the MOOC platform Coursera.
Coursera and edX, another online platform led by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have drawn millions of people around the world to sign up for free online classes from top-flight schools. And they have fueled debate about what matters most in instruction.
Teaching reforms go well beyond MOOCs. In Maryland, educators have slashed live lecturing recently in courses such as Psychology 101 at Bowie State and Salisbury universities, Intermediate Algebra at Frostburg State, and Principles of Biology and Principles of Chemistry at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
“In the end, students are more satisfied, and faculty are more satisfied,” said William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) this year proposed expanding the state’s course-redesign initiative.
U-Va., which joined Coursera last summer, is also looking to improve undergraduate teaching. University officials say they are pleased that MOOCs are giving faculty unprecedented access to a global audience. But that is not their main goal.