miscarriages of justice. Participants follow along with two
police investigations, one conducted according to principles of
psychological science and the other according to old-fashioned
policing’s reliance on what Pike describes as officers’ “gut
The students are mostly members of the general public
interested in psychology, including many intrigued by police
shows on TV. But the course also attracts many law enforcement
personnel, an important demographic since Pike’s research has
shown that a large percentage of police officers aren’t familiar
with the research on eyewitness identification.
Psychology may be especially amenable to the MOOC
format, says Scott Plous, PhD, a psychology professor at
Wesleyan University who has taught the largest real-time
MOOC course ever given. “There’s a general public appetite for
psychology and psychological research findings,” he says.
Plous’s Coursera class “Social Psychology” attracted more
than half a million students, with 260,000 students registered
when he first offered it in 2013 and another 240,000 when he
offered it again in 2014. The BBC even wrote an article about
the course’s final assignment, a “day of compassion” in which
students spent 24 hours being as compassionate as possible
and then analyzed the experience. Students “crowd-sourced”
the best project, with the winner receiving $1,000 to donate to
charity and a chance to meet the Dalai Lama.
Ten thousand students completed that “capstone” project the
first year, meaning that 250,000 or so students didn’t actually
finish the class. That attrition rate isn’t unusual for MOOCs,
which can lose up to 95 percent of their students by the time
they end. But that common criticism of MOOCs doesn’t bother
Plous, who adds that Coursera estimates 162,000 students
actively participated in his course the first time it was offered.
Unlike a college class that students can fail, says Plous, a
MOOC allows students to learn a bit about a particular topic
and take what they need from the experience. A person working
in sales or marketing might be keen to learn more about the
psychology of persuasion and social influence and simply not
need the rest of the class, for example.
“This is a six-week course of mini-lectures on topics that
might be particularly interesting, entertaining or useful for
people who want to enrich their lives, relationships and work,”
says Plous. “If it does that, I consider it a success.”
SMOCs: The next ‘great adventure’
For James Pennebaker, PhD, and Sam Gosling, PhD, the
introductory psychology class they’ve taught together for
years has always been an opportunity for experimentation.
First, the two University of Texas at Austin professors
required students to bring Wi-Fi-enabled devices to class
and undergo daily testing — a move that, as a 2013 article
in PLOS ONE described, boosted performance half a letter
grade, improved performance in other and subsequent
classes and halved the socioeconomic achievement gap.
Next, they created a system so students could have group
chats within class. For their grand finale, they created what
they say is the world’s first synchronous massive online
course, or SMOC.
Launched in 2013, “Psychology LIVE” differs from
a massive open online course, or MOOC, by requiring
students to come together online twice a week for lectures.
To further build a sense of community, the class offers
smaller “pods” facilitated by former students acting as
online teaching assistants, plus chat groups with built-in
software that alerts students if they’re talking too much or
Filming in front of a live audience of randomly selected
students also helps increase intimacy, says Gosling, adding
that many in the production crew are students earning
credit and training in marketable skills. “The question
comes up: Surely, people feel more distant watching online?”
he says. “But that turns out to be not true: They weren’t
connected to us in a lecture hall of 500 seats, but with the
SMOC, it’s like we’re in their living rooms.”
Another difference between SMOCs and MOOCs is that
SMOCs aren’t free. Originally, the professors hoped the
class would attract 10,000 nonuniversity students willing to
pay a few hundred dollars for the for-credit class. Indeed,
the headline for a Wall Street Journal article about the pair’s
innovation trumpeted “Online class aims to earn millions.”
That hasn’t happened. The class, offered each fall, still
mostly consists of regular University of Texas undergrads.
And while Gosling believes the model will eventually spread
to other universities, as far as he knows it hasn’t done so
yet, perhaps because of the expertise and hefty investment
required. Still, the model has been so successful the
university has since developed SMOC versions of American
government and U.S. foreign policy classes.
“Creating the SMOC has forced us to really think about
how to transfer what we did in class into a TV format, but
also to think about what we can do in the TV format we
couldn’t do before,” says Gosling. “It has turned out to be a
— Rebecca A. Clay
To see a video trailer for the course, visit