Professor Yossi Sheffi, Director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, wrote about MOOCs on his LinkedIn Influencer blog. With his permission, we’re re-posting his article on Open Matters:

A man wearing headphones and working at a laptop.

Photograph by Erica Kawamoto Hsu on Flickr. License: CC-BY-NC-ND

In 2012 Battushig Myanganbayar became one of 340 students to earn a perfect score in the sophomore-level MIT course Circuits and Electronics, reported the New York Times. What is remarkable about this – aside from the student’s exceptional grade – is that the 15-year-old boy was living in Mongolia at the time and was one of 150,000 students taking the course.

Think about that for a minute. There were 150,000 students from many countries in one class, including this boy who completed the MIT course from his home in Mongolia. His gifts were discovered and Battushig is now a student at MIT.

It’s a feel-good story, but it’s also a story that exemplifies the revolution in education known as the MOOC or Massive Open Online Course.

Yes, this sounds like another one of those acronyms that educators are fond of. But make no mistake, this is not an exercise in academic semantics – MOOCs are ushering in a new age in education.

I have first-hand experience of the power of MOOCs. On September 30, 2014, supply chain education will take a major step into the digital age with the start of SCx, a free on-line educational program developed by the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics. Even before we have officially announced the start of this new three-course program to the world, more than 9,000 individuals worldwide have signed up! To find more information on the new program go to:

So, what exactly is a MOOC, and how will the concept impact the way current and future leaders learn the skills they need to succeed?

Let’s tackle the second questions first, because the changes that are now taking place in teaching really put the significance of MOOCs in perspective.

Anyone who has been through a college program is familiar with the time-honored classroom format. The instructor stands at the front and delivers a 90-minute lecture, often with the aid of very detailed PowerPoint slides. Students in multiple tiers of seats take notes and, ideally, pepper the talk with questions.

This method of teaching has a number of serious drawbacks.

  • Student participation tends to be patchy. A rule of thumb is that 80% of the questions asked during a class come from 20% of the students. Some individuals choose not to get the clarification they need because they don’t want to look dumb in front of their peers.
  • The pace is set by the instructor. Even the most seasoned teacher cannot possibly cater for the different learning rates of individual class participants. The result is a compromise; pitching the lecture somewhere in the middle.
  • Learning is impaired by delays in receiving feedback. By the time problems or papers are set and posted by the instructor, completed and submitted by students, and graded, the class has moved on to totally new topics.
  • Attention spans are short and shrinking. Typically, student attentiveness starts to drop off about 15 minutes into a class. Since lectures are often 90 minutes in duration, this means that the instructor has the class’s full attention initially, but not when she gets to the meat of her talk.

These problems are well known, yet class formats have remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years. One of the main reasons is that educators tend to address the wrong question. Instead of questioning how they teach, the much more pertinent question is to understand how students learn.

One approach that several professors at MIT and elsewhere have introduced to their classes is to chop lectures into shorter, self-contained segments, of, say 30 minutes in duration. Each segment completes the full explain/practice/feedback learning cycle within a short time period.

This is a step in the right direction, but structuring a class in this way is extremely time-consuming as all lectures need to be reconfigured. Also, the apparent pace of the class seems to slow down as “practice” sessions are added to the in-class portion of course. Actually, this is more of a reflection of the “pace of teaching” better matching the underlying “pace of learning” by students.

Enter the MOOC.

MOOCs are taught in an online environment. This is not a new idea – MIT has offered online courses for many years through its OpenCourseWare – but the new model is designed specifically to overcome the problems that plague traditional classrooms, and takes advantage of the latest social media tools.

A MOOC is interactive, and presents material in short segments. Students learn at their own pace, receive feedback quickly, and develop virtual networks for learning from each other.

MIT has created an initiative (MITx) to create MOOCs in a wide variety of disciplines. Working in collaboration with a number of other leading educational institutions, MIT has also launched edX, a platform for offering a wide range of MOOCs from various universities. The online classrooms can reach huge numbers of students. As mentioned, about 150,000 individuals enrolled in the Circuits and Electronics course, one of the first MOOCs launched by MIT. Some 7,000 successfully completed all of the required work and gained certification. While this is a small fraction of the original enrollment, it represents almost 100 years worth of in-resident students who typically take the traditional in-residence course at MIT!

MOOCs require a lot of backroom work to create the courses that are then broadcast virtually to students worldwide. But the pay offs in terms of more effective education with a global reach can be vast.

We are only at the beginning of this revolution. The potential for broadening our educational reach is staggering. Who knows how many young people like Battushig Myanganbayar will reach their true potential thanks to MOOCs.