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MOOCs in Science Education

Massive open online courses have quite a bit to offer the research and advanced science education communities, from providing ways to learn very specific bits of knowledge and techniques to enabling collaborative and inventive ways for young researchers to develop, according to a commentary in Nature.

Hazel Sive and Sanjay Sarma, both of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, say that MOOCs will be a boon to interdisciplinary research, and that they are not likely to ever replace professors.

Instead, online courses will enable faculty members to spend more time in classrooms and with students, but spending less time lecturing and more in "discussion, hands-on activities, problem solving, and research."

The biggest impact of MOOCs likely will be in interdisciplinary online education, they write. If a student at MIT needs to pick up some knowledge of a specific technique, but a course is not offered there, or not offered until a later time, that student may be able to take an online course from another university and be ready to apply those skills sooner.

Another benefit of MOOCs will be that they will enable researchers to engage in "fluid learning," picking up specific segments of knowledge as they need them, such as focusing on a 10-minute segment of a module taken from a full-length lecture about how to measure changes in cell shape, or on a similarly focused theme.

"The postdoc uses these to increase his competency faster, more cheaply and more comprehensively than he would by taking a course, visiting a relevant laboratory or attending a meeting. This sort of learning has the potential to improve research output," Sive and Sarma say.

They also argue that MOOCs can help researchers gain training that they may otherwise have to travel to get, which could be a big help at a time when science funding is tight and each dollar spent on traveling to meetings and conferences can take away from research projects.