The Professors Who Make the MOOCs

Steve Kolowich:

What is it like to teach 10,000 or more students at once, and does it really work? The largest-ever survey of professors who have taught MOOCs, or massive open online courses, shows that the process is time-consuming, but, according to the instructors, often successful. Nearly half of the professors felt their online courses were as rigorous academically as the versions they taught in the classroom.
The survey, conducted by The Chronicle, attempted to reach every professor who has taught a MOOC. The online questionnaire was sent to 184 professors in late February, and 103 of them responded.
Hype around these new free online courses has grown louder and louder since a few professors at Stanford University drew hundreds of thousands of students to online computer-science courses in 2011. Since then MOOCs, which charge no tuition and are open to anybody with Internet access, have been touted by reformers as a way to transform higher education and expand college access. Many professors teaching MOOCs had a similarly positive outlook: Asked whether they believe MOOCs “are worth the hype,” 79 percent said yes.
Princeton University’s Robert Sedgewick is one of them. He had never taught online before he decided to co-lead a massive open online course titled “Algorithms: Part I.”
Like many professors at top-ranked institutions, Mr. Sedgewick was very skeptical about online education. But he was intrigued by the notion of bringing his small Princeton course on algorithms, which he had taught for five years, to a global audience. So after Princeton signed a deal with an upstart company called Coursera to offer MOOCs, he volunteered for the front lines.
His online course drew 28,000 students when it opened last summer, but Sedgewick was not daunted. He had spent hundreds of hours readying the material, devoting as much as two weeks each to recording and fine-tuning videotaped lectures. The preparation itself, he said, was “a full-time job.”