Think your class of 100 or 300 students is big? Imagine teaching more than 112,000 students from 200-plus countries. That’s the situation Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, PhD, found himself in
when he and colleague Emiliano Simon-Thomas, PhD, taught a massive open
online course (MOOC) called “The Science of Happiness” last fall. Since then,
another 64,000 people have enrolled in a self-paced version of the free class.
For Keltner, the MOOC is a way to promote what psychology has to offer
to a much broader audience than an academic journal’s readership or students
in a traditional classroom. For students, the class offers a fun way to learn not
just the science of happiness, but also practical tools for putting that research
to use. Thanks to tracking throughout the course, Keltner knows that the
class is having an impact: By the end of it, students are happier, more satisfied
with their lives and less stressed out, and the more they engage in the class’s
exercises, the more they benefit.
“If you’re in a profession with science and methods and discoveries that
can be useful to people out there, it’s a really uplifting experience to get those
ideas out there,” says Keltner. “It makes you feel like your work matters.”
Keltner’s class is one of hundreds of MOOCs now offered by a consortium of
top-ranked universities called EdX, for-profit companies such as Coursera and
other entities in the United States and beyond, including the Arabic-language
MOOC portal Edraak, the Chinese-language XuetangX and the French-language
France Université Numerique. What these courses typically have in common is
no tuition, no credit, huge numbers of students and the belief that technology
can bring high-quality education to just about anyone, anywhere.
And while MOOCs may not live up to the early hype about their potential
to bring the equivalent of a traditional college education to anyone with
an Internet connection (see “Will MOOCs be flukes?” in the “Additional
resources” section), they do represent an excellent vehicle for spreading the
word about psychology, say Keltner and other psychologists.
Now MOOCs are targeting new populations, such as employees seeking
career advancement and high school students seeking an edge on Advanced
Placement exams or college admissions, which may further broaden their
audience. In addition, new business models are emerging that may allow
instructors to be paid and so make teaching MOOCs more attractive. And
there are new variations on the MOOC itself, including the “SMOC,” or
synchronized massive online course, pioneered by psychology professors at the
University of Texas (see sidebar).
The MOOC is the latest development in a history of distance learning that
stretches back to the correspondence courses of the late 19th century. A more
recent precursor is Britain’s Open University, which began using mail and radio
courses to broaden participation in education in 1969 and has since become the
United Kingdom’s largest academic institution. The university has now launched
a MOOC company called FutureLearn to make high-quality education even
more broadly available.
“I’m not a fan of the ivory tower view of academia, where all information
is kept behind closed doors,” says psychologist Graham Pike, PhD, a professor
of forensic cognition at Open University who teaches a FutureLearn MOOC
on witness investigation. “The idea is to bring psychology more into the
In the eight-week course, participants learn the dangers of relying
on eyewitness testimony and how psychological science can prevent