Column | Sept. 17

What we can learn from MOOCs

During many mornings this past summer, I wandered into the kitchen to see my father, a retired investment banker, hunched intently over his laptop, headphones on and scribbling notes. As I fumbled with the coffee machine, he talked excitedly in my direction about the expansion of the universe or the relative nature of time. I doubt I’d have understood him even if I had been fully awake, but his enthusiasm for his “Massive Open Online Course,” or MOOC, about Einstein reminded me fondly of my freshman self. As an experiment both he and my mother decided to enroll in courses through Coursera, a website that pools online course offerings from top universities, including Princeton.

I had heard about MOOCs before but was excited to witness them in action — less for their content than for their structure. Each MOOC consists of lecture series streamed online, tests, homework exercises and discussion forums all moderated and graded by professors. There are deadlines each week, but the student decides when to work within that timeframe. For my father, this usually meant the early hours of the morning — although sometimes I caught him napping on the couch in the afternoon, mid-lecture, with his computer on his lap.

The general consensus in the media is that Coursera and similar sites run by Harvard, MIT and Stanford represent the future of higher education: a true meritocracy in which anyone, anywhere, of any age or background, can get an Ivy League education. In an in-depth piece in The American Interest earlier this year, Nathan Harden predicted that “the residential college campus will become largely obsolete” within 50 years. Unsustainably high levels of student debt and an increasing number of academic qualifications available online will drive most middle-tier colleges out of business, he argues, leaving behind only a few of the wealthiest institutions to compete fiercely with each other. Perhaps a few residential campuses will remain, but they will be an unnecessary luxury attended by a small minority.

While I’m not sure what to make of the exact extent of these claims, I do think that the trend toward online education offers Princeton and its students an important opportunity for re-evaluation. To remain a top-tier learning institution, Princeton needs to borrow some of the innovations offered by the MOOC model to improve the in-class learning experience offered to its students on campus. Some professors, such as Professor Gmachl in the engineering department, have begun to incorporate aspects of the MOOC — but not nearly enough.

The MOOC model has been shaped by the latest findings in psychology and neuroscience research. The setup I observed during my parents’ courses without a doubt felt more efficient than the traditional lecture model used on campus today, especially for large survey courses. Being able to watch lectures in your own time and at your own speed greatly improves flexibility and efficiency, catering to each individual’s learning style. The “flipped” classroom model used at Stanford, where students watch lectures beforehand and spend all class time interacting with professors, discussing or completing practice exercises, is one way Princeton might update the structure of many of its courses. This would not only maximize student-professor interaction time but also the speed of learning: Researchers at Carnegie Mellon found that combining machine-guided learning with traditional classroom instruction allowed students to learn the same material in half the time. It will be interesting to get feedback from Professor Gmachl’s engineering class, which is piloting this kind of model by watching lectures at home before class, at the end of the semester.

While it may not happen during our school years, the thought that the residential campus may one day become extinct offers an opportunity for each of us as students to clarify the unique added value we’re gaining from the residential college experience, as opposed to the alternative of taking courses on Coursera. To me, this means being mindful that living and working with professors and other people who are in the same stage of life — sharing passions, forming relationships and working together — cannot be replaced by any form of online forum or chat room.

I don’t think campuses like ours will ever become obsolete, no matter how exciting, cheap and efficient the MOOC option becomes. Campuses are a place for social and emotional as well as academic development, places where one can chat about philosophy with a classmate over dinner or bounce career plans off a professor who is more friend than faculty. So next time any of us mopes about being ready to get on with the real world or being trapped in the Orange Bubble — feelings I often have — remember that a place like this is becoming more and more of a rarity. Hopefully the prospect of a MOOC-dominated world can help us all actively seek out the positive aspects of the residential experience and let the negatives ones slide.

Lauren Davis is a philosophy major from North Hampton, N.H. She can be reached at

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