Many MOOC students are looking for more than just informal
In a 2013 study of students taking University of
Pennsylvania-produced MOOCs on Coursera, researchers from
the university found that most are already well-educated and
cite a desire to advance in their jobs and to satisfy their curiosity
as their main motivations for enrolling.
In sync with those findings, Udacity — the MOOC
platform founded by MOOC originator Sebastian Thrun
— no longer seeks to provide access to higher education to
all. Instead, its goal is to offer training that can help people
advance in the tech industry.
Most MOOC platforms allow students who pass their
courses to purchase certificates that they can use when applying
for academic programs, jobs or promotions. Keltner’s class also
offers continuing education credit to psychologists and other
“MOOCs are an important opportunity for influence,
because lawyers, physicians, nurses, speech therapists, clinical
therapists, even schoolteachers need continuing education and
professional development,” says Keltner. “They’re going to want
it on an online platform, and this is a way to do that.” The self-paced version of the class is designed for professionals with
many demands on their time, he adds.
At the other end of the spectrum are high school students,
a new target audience for MOOCs. Earlier this year, EdX
launched two dozen free high school classes. EdX’s chief
executive officer predicts that middle and high schoolers could
eventually account for a third of EdX users.
Jeneen Graham, EdD, academic dean at St. Margaret’s
Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, California, is
teaching the introduction to psychology class. In contrast
to the 18 students she usually teaches face-to-face in her
Advanced Placement psychology class at St. Margaret’s, she is
now teaching more than 27,000 students from 185 countries.
Many are from rural areas that lack access to Advanced
Placement-style courses. Others are home-schooled. Still others
are international students who want to prepare for college in
the United States. Graham has encouraged her St. Margaret’s
students to enroll, too, as a way to review for the upcoming
Advanced Placement exam.
But fewer than half of the enrollees are actually high school
students, says Graham, explaining that she has “a couple of
85-year-olds” as well as students with doctorates.
“Many are in technical or scientific fields where they have a lot
of scientific knowledge but may not have the human understanding,” she says. “Others are thinking about changing careers.” Others simply want to explore psychology in what Graham calls the
more “approachable” venue of a high school class.
In addition to new audiences, MOOC producers are also
exploring new business models. Currently, most instructors
aren’t compensated, either by the MOOC platform or their own
universities. And putting together a MOOC can be a great deal
of work, says Anderson D. Smith, PhD, a psychology professor
emeritus at the Georgia Institute of Technology who has twice
taught an “Introduction to Psychology as a Science” MOOC for
You can’t just film your lectures and slap them up online,
says Smith. “It was very time-consuming — like my first year as
a college professor,” he says.
Fortunately, Georgia Tech received funding to develop
Smith’s and two other MOOCs from the Bill and Melinda
Gates Foundation, which hopes to save college students
money by replacing basic courses with MOOCs. The $50,000
grant covered the cost of producing the models, a computer
specialist to handle the technical aspects and a teaching
assistant whose full-time job was to monitor the class
With a seal of approval from Quality Matters, which offers
quality assurance for online education, the course offered its
41,000 students the option of undergoing identity verification
and paying a fee to get certificates they could use to persuade
their home institutions to give them college credit. So many
students took that route that Smith received a $2,000 check
from Coursera — the first payment he has received for
developing the MOOC and teaching it twice.
“They’re beginning to figure out ways to have a business
model that actually pays instructors,” says Smith. Georgia Tech,
he points out, now offers a MOOC-only master’s degree in
computer science that costs just $6,000, with instructors paid as
if they were teaching continuing-education courses.
For Smith, teaching the MOOC wasn’t about the money. It
was about spreading the message that understanding human
behavior requires scientific validation rather than intuition or
common sense. Plus, he says, it was professionally satisfying.
“I was looking for a new adventure,” says Smith. “It was fun
for me.” n
• Class Central. List of MOOCs in all subject areas
available at www.class-central.com.
• Konnikova, M. (2014). Will MOOCs be flukes? New
Yorker. Available at www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/moocs-failure-solutions.
• Plous, S. (n.d.). Distance learning in psychology. List of
psychology-related MOOCs and other distance learning
options available at www.socialpsychology.org/distance.