The New Learning Style

26 Feb 2014 23:46 | Armelle Loghmanian

The New Learning Style

By Corina Ciechanow


 Corina Ciechanow

VP Women & Technology

The next Revolution for Higher Education?

When we think of higher education, we normally think of spending 3 to 5 years of study, in a well-known institution at a considerable cost. What if you could follow the same courses from the comfort of your home, at your own pace, and with a much lower cost or even for free? Welcome to the world of Massive Open Online Courses!

[photo from Mathieu Plourde's MOOC poster]

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs, pronounced “mooks”) are online courses open to almost everybody who has access to the Internet, and they are also usually free, or very accessible.
Top class universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Michigan or more nearby the Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL) have already adopted this trend and are offering very interesting subjects. Many others are following, as they see this opportunity as the evolution of the traditional distance education, and a new way to extend their reach to a public that was not theirs before as the cost doesn’t vary much even for thousands of students more.

How does it work?

Go to edX, Coursera, or just google ‘MOOC’ and browse through the list of courses until you find a subject you are interested in. To follow a course you have to enroll by giving your name and email coordinates, and don’t forget to check the schedule associated with it: there is a beginning date, a given rhythm at which you’ll be presented with the lessons, and exam dates. The course is usually given through videos or podcasts (audio) that are released every 1 or 2 weeks, and there are exercises and assignments to be done and transferred to the website.

As the audience is extremely large (there are courses of up to 100.000 students enrolled), the assistance and evaluation is a crucial issue in the MOOCs development. It’s impossible to have as many assistants as would be required to correct each assignment :- ), and though it is easy to automatically correct multiple choice questions, it’s less obvious to provide help and feedback on why the student is mistaken.

Also not everything can be evaluated through multiple-choice questions, some subjects demand open questions. Imagine a Creativity course, how could you put the choices in advance when you are asking creativity from people? And what about courses that aim at teaching you writing techniques? You would like them to provide a sample of a text that respects certain constraints, not easy to automatically correct that. Not to count the easiness of cheating if you manage to have the file with the results for a questionnaire …

So they have come up with different techniques to cope with these challenges, such as promoting peer-evaluation, crowdsourcing corrections and more.

The platform where you enroll for a course also provides interactive forums that help build a community for the students and professors. It is nice not to feel alone, to share your problems and get some answers or to help others to solve theirs and gain some reputation on the community.

The impact on traditional education

Classical education is usually given through classes consisting of a professor speaking and conveying all the theoretical information. The student has then to understand and memorize this, do exercises and he/she is ready for the exam.

Now that so much information is reachable through Internet, there is no reason to attend classes. Even if we are not talking about closing universities and other institutions, you could have ‘The Best’ professor on a particular subject in a video. Professors would be more useful indicating where to find the information, and being there in the class to help interpret it, to discuss and go further on the subject.

This graphic shows that a third of the US students follow an online course, so professors cannot dismiss this trend.

Best tool for Continuous Education!

What about the millions of other people who are not planning to enroll in higher education? MOOCs allow anybody to learn about different subjects. But anybody means people with different backgrounds, who may not complete the full course because of lack of previous knowledge, but also with different interests and studying for different reasons, so they may need only a topic of the course. MOOCs are being designed for that use, they are usually structured in logical units, chapters talk about a specific topic, so you can take whatever part you want to learn, and just ignore the rest.

MOOCs statistics

How are MOOCs doing? It’s clear that not all who enroll finish the course, but statistics can be depressing: they show that about 50% of enrolled students quit in the first week and 16% do so in the second week. And only 5% obtain a certificate of completion.

Are these numbers showing MOOCs are not doing well? Not if we take into account that some people take just the chapters they are interested in, and disregard the rest. And many others who register for a course are engaging substantially even though not earning a certificate. Registering for a course does not imply the student is committing to complete it; he/she just studies what he needs from it.

Justin Reich & Andrew Ho wrote an article about why traditional evaluation measures like completion rates are not good to evaluate the success of MOOCs:

“One of the first HarvardX courses, JusticeX, was originally produced as a PBS series by WGBH in Boston. Professor Michael Sandel has 12 video lectures from that series that were posted on YouTube in September of 2009. The first video has nearly 5 million views. The second has 1.2 million views. By the fifth video, views have declined to about 200,000 views for each video. Rather than decry this “5 percent completion rate” as a crisis in public broadcasting, we find it remarkable that Michael Sandel can post a 45 minute video lecture on moral reasoning and get 5 million views. Anyone who watched one video or all twelve is a little wiser for their efforts.

Societal changes

  • Democratizing education
Last year, Stephen Colbert from Comedy Central’s Colbert Report interviewed Anant Agarwal, the president of edX, a MOOC platform that hosts courses from HarvardX and MITx. Stephen asked: ‘why those universities would offer the courses for free?’ Anant said they follow this motto ‘Educating the world is a better world for everybody’
As the best known universities are doing MOOCs, they are giving the opportunity to anyone around the globe who has Internet access to attend excellent education. It’s democratizing education, and I’m sure it will translate in a boom of start-ups that will boost innovation and the economy.
  • Learn-as-you-need
Another radical change is the fact that you can search for courses on the topics that you need in a particular moment, without having to commit to a full educational course of studies. This trend is called ‘learn-as-you-need’.
Higher education offers predefined degrees that contained a fixed list of courses you have to follow. With the abundance of MOOCs, you have the freedom to choose among different subjects as you please, and you could customize the learning to your specific need or will. This is particularly interesting during continuous education, as advances in technology create new fields in your profession, but also along the way you may need competences in domains other than your studies.
  • Change of values: knowledge as a valuable asset?
Professors and other people with great knowledge are seen as an important group in society. It takes time to reach that level of education, and the effort was equaled by respect from society. But as everything in our economy, now that almost any subject is reachable and there is an abundance of knowledge, its value diminishes. Value is moving from just having the knowledge to how you use it.

What are the actual shortfalls of MOOCs?

The most important shortfall is the loss of being part of the student body of an institution. Spending part of your day in the classroom, gives you much more than raw knowledge, it gives you access to other people who are on a similar path, and who are eager to share knowledge, discuss, argue and challenge the current status of the sciences, opening your mind even further to new ideas. Being in a ‘campus’ also allows for the creation of your future professional network.

Unfortunately this side of the experience of being a student cannot be fully replaced with technology, though a limited version is being done through the forums that allow user exchanges, creating even reputations for some contributors along the way.

There is also the issue of focus. By committing yourself to a curriculum with a fixed calendar and known goals, you are forced to review your priorities, and focus on getting the maximum benefits from your time at university. With the overabundance of MOOCs, this sense of focus, and clear objectives is reduced to your own inner motivations. There will always be another chance to take that MOOC, especially if the cost of missing the current one is zero. So you risk entering into a perpetual cycle of postponing finishing the courses that you have started.

In conclusion, MOOCs may change higher education in the future, but for now it’s a superb tool to update yourself and learn all those subjects you were interested in but haven’t had the time to look into them.

We will do a presentation about MOOCs at PWI, come and ask me the best courses I took!

Do not hesitate to comment or ask your questions by mail to You may find more details on these technological subjects in my blog at


Main MOOCs websites:
Khan Academy:

Short Biography

Corina Ciechanow is the owner and managing partner of Waterloo Hills, an IT consultancy company focusing on project management, data science and Internet businesses. Since 2008 Waterloo Hills has been helping companies to cope with the challenge of managing IT projects in a highly connected, culturally diverse and very dynamic society. Corina also gives seminars and blogs about data science and crowdsourcing.

She is a Board member at PWI, leading the ‘Women & Technology’ program. The objective is to raise awareness on technological advances that have an impact on our society and on our current business environment.

Contacts Details: 
Corina Ciechanow
VP Women & Technology @PWI
Managing Partner @Waterloo Hills
email address: ,
website blog:

Disclaimer -      
Any views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PWI, nor do they constitute a legally binding agreement.
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