MOOC! The massive learning challenges in the digital age

Javier Sánchez | Researcher

By the middle of 2011, and as in every year, Machine Learning classes at Stanford University reached to their end. Nothing unusual, except for one little detail: more than 22.000 students from over 70 countries joined the course this time, and they did it for free. This massive attendance seems astronomical for the usual numbers managed by the traditional colleges, but it is no big deal compared to the million and a half students currently enrolled in Coursera, a digital platform offering more than 190 free courses all over the world.

Coursera, created by professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Kohler, brings together 33 universities, including Princeton, Brown and Stanford itself. Meanwhile, Harvard, Berkeley and MIT promote their courses from the web edX. The time of MOOC (Massive Online Open Courses) has come, and no university wants to miss this new model of learning, extended to a wide range of topics, spanning the Humanities, Medicine, Biology, Social Sciences, Mathematics, Business or Computer Science.
The idea of computer-based collaborative learning has been studied since the 1960s, while online courses have been around for over a decade. However, in the last years a new learning paradigm came out, based on a greater scalability of completely-free contents. The result: more than 4 million people in the past 3 years have joined some kind of MOOC in any of the available web platforms, following a rate of growth that does not appear to decrease.
Such rapid increase in the number of students has also created a big controversy surrounding this form of learning. First, the long-term funding model for this type of  platforms generates all sorts of doubts. While early MOOCs as Udacity  follow a philosophy of democratizing quality education, Coursera and edX emulate the Silicon Valley business model (Build fast and worry about money later), so that advertising and private sponsorship is more than likely in the near future.
Moreover, the lack of feedback from the students of the MOOC and the absence of direct contact with teachers are two remaining issues in this kind of initiatives. While the different platforms encourage the student interaction through forums, study groups and meetings at local newspapers, it is necessary to further analyze the learning process, so that the quality  of the educational content provided can be known. In addition, another major remaining challenge for online learning platforms is the adaptation of such contents to the capabilities and learning rates of each user, something that would certainly improve the education provided.
At this point technology could have the answers needed to make the leap towards new heights. By using various sensors is possible to analyze the behavior of the students and their disposition towards the course, analyzing their interest and their reactions to the contents, always with the aim of optimizing the learning process. Most likely, technologies as those developed in Gradiant will be employed in the future to create affective tutoring environments: systems capable of monitoring the students across the learning process, assessing emotional reactions and cognitive states, automatically adapting the materials to the levels of comprehension. A smart University?