Why Rice University's Massive Open Online Courses are Attracting Attention and Scrutiny

This year, faculty at rice will teach almost two dozen free online courses to thousands of students and teachers around the world as part of a movement to make higher education more accessible. What's in it for rice students in houston and beyond?

The modest video features two men sitting side by side in a sparsely furnished office, speaking directly into a webcam. The bespectacled one on the right wears a button-down blue shirt and tie and speaks first. “Hi, I’m Scott Rixner.” The bearded one on the left wears a striped purple polo shirt. “And I’m Joe Warren. Scott and I are professors in the Department of Computer Science here at Rice University. With the help of Stephen Wong and John Greiner, we are proud to offer an exciting new course designed for Coursera.”

The course, “ An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python,” teaches the simple-to-learn, high-level language used in many introductory computer classes at Rice. Warren explains that the two developed a new browser-based environment called CodeSkulptor to make programming applications easier, and Rixner adds that students will learn by building fun games, such as “Pong,” “Blackjack” and “Asteroids.” “We can’t promise that you’ll be a professional programmer,” he said with a boyish grin, “but you’ll definitely know enough to be dangerous!”

With this charmingly nerdy  video, Rice launched itself into the technologically sophisticated and rapidly evolving world of MOOCs last year. They reached more students (80,000) with one course than have ever attended a class at Rice in more than 100 years. A MOOC is a faculty-taught course made available to students worldwide (massive) via the Internet (online) for free or at a minimal cost (open). While the concept of distance education is nothing new — motivated learners have long turned to radio, television and closed-circuit video networks for access to education — MOOCs leverage today’s technology to broadcast courses to audiences undreamed of in the era of extended education. Such courses harness video technology, online textbooks, student chat rooms or forums, virtual labs and other new software applications to facilitate learning.

This new brand of online education is the subject not only of intense debate about teaching, learning and campus resources, but also of entrepreneurial invention and capital investment. Proponents say MOOCs will democratize knowledge; critics say MOOCs will dilute scholarship or undermine the traditional classroom learning environment. Some see a revolution in personalized learning, while others see a new revenue stream.*

What do the Rice guys in the video see? Something that has changed the way they think about and practice the art of teaching. “I will never ‘lecture’ in a classroom again,” said Rixner, during a talk last December about what he learned by teaching his first MOOC. “This is how I will teach in the future, whether I’m teaching for 80,000 people online or 20 people in a Rice classroom.” If that sounds counterintuitive for a faculty member at a university like Rice — with its 6-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio, median class size of 15, wealth of undergraduate research and distinctive residential college system — read on. 

The Rise of the MOOC 

To trace the rapid rise of MOOCs in higher education’s discourse, we need to page through only a few years of history. A legacy of the open-source software movement of the 1980s, MOOC is an acronym coined by Canadian educators as recently as 2008. The term breached the public’s consciousness only in the past couple of years, after some university-level experiments in placing courses online resulted in then-unheard of enrollment numbers.

In 2011, for example, more than 58,000 people enrolled in Stanford’s “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” online course, which was taught by two superstars in the field, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. In The New York Times, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) computer scientist commented on Stanford’s megaclass, saying “… we will see lots and lots of models over the next four or five years.” That statement turned out to be prescient.

These early experiences, along with the success of online educational nonprofits like the Khan Academy, inspired the founding of two ventures, Coursera and Udacity. Coursera, which launched in spring 2012 with four university partners — Stanford University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan — has signed up more than 100 universities and other organizations to provide free, online education around the world. Udacity functions more like an online university with courses that can be taken either for free or for a fee that guarantees college credit. MIT and Harvard University also formed the nonprofit edX. Much like Coursera, edX acts as a hub or consortium for its member universities, which include many international schools. These MOOC providers created sophisticated platforms for course delivery and began forming partnerships with universities to access course content.

It seems like not a week goes by without a major news article about the growing phenomenon of MOOCs. The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, as well as The New York Times, have