Courtesy of

Cornell's MOOC on sharks is accessible for free through the edX online education website.

March 12, 2018

Online Courses Turn Profs From ‘Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side’

Print More

“Any person, … any study”: it is the phrase heard resounding across the Arts Quad as a backwards-walking tour guide shouts to a shuffling clump of wide-eyed high school students about Cornell’s history of inclusiveness. For Cornellians, the phrase is cliched, but beloved — seen running across the front of every brochure, every banner and every statue across campus. Ezra Cornell was progressive for his time and aimed to promote his institution’s role as a nondiscriminatory place of learning that is open to any student, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender.

Unbeknownst to Ezra Cornell, the age of the computer would take this inclusiveness to another level. Geographical location is no longer a barrier to a Cornell education. With the onset of online learning at the start of the millenium, it soon became possible for anyone with access to a computer and the internet to participate in higher education, whether by getting a degree from an online university, or simply watching filmed lectures or other informational videos.

A few years later, many large universities, including Cornell, began to offer online courses. These online programs, known as “MOOCs” or Massive Open Online Courses, revolutionized the world of online learning with the ultimate goal of making education more accessible.

The first popularized MOOC, released by Stanford in 2011, burst onto the education scene and quickly paved the way for countless other universities to participate in “MOOC fever.” They range along a broad variety of subjects in both humanities and STEM subjects, enabling people from countries across the globe to take part in the specialized knowledge without having to pay for the cost of an undergraduate education.

While they looked good on paper, they soon received heavy criticism. Many critics argued that MOOCs were not as accessible as claimed and were not an adequate replacement for what is considered “traditional learning,” in other words, a general lecture style course. Participants were failing the online classes at a much higher percentage than the traditional equivalents, leading critics to accuse the students of lacking academic integrity. Additionally, they were often more successful for students who were either already in good academic standing at an undergraduate institution, or had already completed their undergraduate degree, bringing into question their claim to accessibility. From the universities’ standpoint, MOOCs were expensive and at times unprofitable given that most of the courses are offered for free.

These criticisms along with others were mentioned in a barrage of news articles, including one released by the Harvard Business Review in 2013 by Gianpiero Petriglieri that claimed MOOCs “aren’t digital keys to great classrooms’ doors. At best, they are infomercials for those classrooms. At worst, they are digital postcards from gated communities.”

Since 2012, dubbed “The Year of the MOOC” by the New York Times, MOOC production has dwindled a considerable amount, and many universities, Cornell included, have ceased to make new MOOCs altogether.

That being said, many professors who had helped make the MOOCS think the age of the MOOC is not necessarily over. While the online courses might not be able to outright replace formal education and are perhaps not the philanthropic achievement originally advertised, they are still valuable for numerous reasons — particularly for the future of education in science and technology.

Cornell has made 12 MOOCs ranging a variety of subjects. Some of the most successful have been in the sciences, notably “Sharks! Global Biodiversity, Biology, and Conservation” conducted by Prof. William E. Bemis, ecology and evolutionary biology. His four-week-long course, which uses a combination of brief informational videos and interactive exercises to apply new concepts, aims to give participants an introduction to shark biology and conservation. The course has attracted “more than 25,000 learners to date from more than 180 countries,” according to Bemis and has an extremely high completion rate, something many MOOCs have failed to achieve. While the course stands alone as a way to learn new material, Bemis explained that his course, as well as MOOCs in general, can be very helpful when it comes to supplementing on-campus courses. He uses the short, informational videos produced for the MOOC on sharks in several of his classes as pre-lecture content. This learning style is often referred to as “just-in-time learning” which has students learn and apply concepts on their own the night before they are taught about the topic in class. This technique is thought to help students grasp topics before they attend lecture the next day, therefore reducing the amount of brand-new material that they have to learn in the span of one lecture.

Other professors, however, believe that MOOCs can be more than just supplemental. Dr. Rajesh Bhaskaran, mechanical and aerospace engineering, affirmed that MOOCs are well-suited for what is popularly called “active learning,” or learning a concept and immediately being asked to apply that concept, followed by a successive evaluation. According to Bhaskaran, this style of learning is extremely effective for teaching concepts that involve the application of formulas or the use of any mathematical model techniques often used in the sciences. Research has shown this method to be an extremely effective way of learning any subject; however, it applies particularly well to the sciences as the subject often emphasizes applied learning and requires repetition — both features that are possible through online learning.

While this method of learning STEM subjects certainly sounds feasible, the prevailing criticism of this form of education is that it leads to a loss of human interaction. Learning from a live person is commonly accepted as the most effective way of learning; however, Bhaskaran says the opposite often happens with the introduction of online learning. In his experience, students learn the concepts on their own through active learning and when they happen upon something they don’t understand as well, they come talk to him in his office.

“I am able to have more office hours than I normally would,” Bhaskaran explained. “I go from being the sage on the stage to the guide by the side.”

That being said, this arrangement requires that students have in-person access to a professor, something that is not possible for a large number of the people who participate in MOOCs.

Some believe that the future of MOOCs goes above and beyond educating students. Prof. Marianne E. Krasny, natural resources, believes that MOOCs may very well be the future of educating educators. Her course, which she created with help from Keith Tidball, associate director of the same department, is directed towards future environmental educators. Titled “Reclaiming Broken Places: Introduction to Civic Ecology,” Krasny’s MOOC is unique in that it combines the disciplines of psychology, political science, ecology and sociology with an emphasis on education and outreach. Although it differs in many respects from both the MOOC on sharks and the MOOC about engineering simulation in that there is no directly applied “hard science,” it aims to get people engaged in environmental improvements and help educators communicate the importance of environmental issues to those who may not have access to learning about them otherwise. Additionally, Krasny said that one of the greatest outcomes of her MOOC was the dissemination of information around the world.

“MOOCs allow participants to share different approaches to environmental issues through social media and discussion boards,” she said. “On the continuum of disseminating knowledge and creating knowledge, it falls somewhere in between.”

So what is the future of the MOOC? It may not be able fix the problem of inaccessible higher education that plagues our world, nor is it completely obsolete. Many professors, when asked whether Cornell should continue offering them, felt as though these courses should continue to be a resource for Cornell and non-Cornell students alike. Bemis, for example, said that “they should stay in the mix for a global institution like Cornell,” a statement that seems to correspond with the view many people hold of what Cornell represents: an institution that serves as a source of knowledge for the entire world, not just a select portion.

“Cornell should be the land-grant to the world and offering MOOCs is one way to achieve that,” Prof. Sarah Davidson Evanega, plant breeding and genetics, co-creator of a MOOC entitled “The Science and Politics of the GMO,” said. “The fact that you can make the science accessible to a person despite their location or life constraints is very satisfying and really fulfills the Cornell motto, ‘any person, any study.’”