Astonishing MOOC success more complicated than it seemed

Last fall, an engineering professor at San Jose State University named Khosrow Ghadiri tried something radical in his Introduction to Circuits course. He made a MOOC a central part of the his class curriculum. MOOCs are free online courses that have become a worldwide sensation, both wildly popular and controversial, Seattle Weekly reports.

They are prompting a shake up of higher education, including at the University of Washington, as this week’s cover story details.

The MOOC Ghadiri used was particularly controversial because it came from MIT, feeding a fear among San Jose State faculty members that their jobs would soon be outsourced. Yet the engineering professor’s results were undeniable.

Before last year, the circuits class had a 59 percent pass rate—a big problem because engineering students were required to pass the class before continuing on. In the first semester that Ghadiri introduced the MOOC, the pass rate shot up to 91 percent.

That impressive leap got national press coverage, and has served as a case in point for those arguing the merits of online courses.

Yet, as Ghadiri explains, his use of the MOOC was only the beginning of a story about what happened last year.

The veteran engineering professor, who hails from Iran, says he decided to try something new because he “was noticing that the system of education is not functioning correctly.” One of the big problems he saw was that students, having grown up in the digital age, were no longer reading the assigned textbook before coming to class. “Then my job in the classroom was to summarize the textbook,” he says.

This ran contrary to his beliefs about teaching, which he thought should be about helping students understand the most challenging material.

He also found that students would tune out after the first five or 10 minutes of a lecture, causing them to miss a lot of technical material. “Sometimes, I would turn around and see on their faces that they don’t understand.”

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