MOOCs: Can they produce the next Einstein?

Growing proliferation of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is having a profound (if not fully understood) effect on education. MOOCs, compared to traditional classrooms, have impressively high enrollment, introduce more diversity into student population, and show better learning outcomes among students. MOOCs are arguably “changing higher learning forever“.

However, learning is not the sole function of education; creating knowledge, or doing research, is another responsibility of academia. While MOOCs produce armies of learners, it is unclear if they are going to inspire the next generation of scientific discovery. The effect of growing proliferation of MOOCs on creating knowledge is not yet known, nor has it been studied systematically.

In a traditional campus setting, students typically become interested in research in several ways. They hear about latest research advances from professors or teaching assistants for class. Naturally, they ask about the concepts that piqued their interest and get involved in research work to find answers. Alternatively, students receive assignments with a research component, such as laboratory in life sciences or research papers in social sciences. Finally, they receive comments on their work from instructors, allowing for scientific dialog and collaboration.

To learn how research would work in the MOOC setting, I interviewed Prof. Robert Lue, faculty director of HarvardX and professor of the Practice of Molecular and Cellular Biology. Prof. Lue teaches a wildly popular Harvard course Life Sciences 1a. Prof. Lue’s own research focuses on defining and assessing how large research universities like Harvard can effectively foster new generations of scientists.

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