MOOCs and Khan Academy: Opening up Science Education

December 10, 2012 | Posted by leah in Research |
#jiscwebinar What Is A MOOC? @dkernohan by giulia.forsythe, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  giulia.forsythe 


The cost of education in the United States has risen astronomically. The average annual cost of tuition, room and board for an undergraduate increased nearly 600% from $3,101 in 1980 to in $18,497 in 2010. And the mean cost to attend private institutions in 2010 was almost double, at $32,026.

To afford these fees, American students, past and present, now have a total student loan debt over $1 trillion. The growing tuition costs have further impacted truancy and drop-out rates, with lower income students more likely to drop out of school than students from wealthier families.

This divide has propelled a recent explosion of disruptive education models. There are the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), led by Coursera, Udacity and edX, which offer free online versions of courses from professors at top universities; and then there is the not-for-profit Khan Academy  which provides thousands of educational videos completely free of charge. All these organisations aim to use technology to open education to millions, simply via the internet.

These models open access to science education, and disseminate scientific knowledge to a wide and varied audience. Below is an overview of these respective models, and how they can benefit individual students, and science as a whole.

For-Profit MOOCs: Coursera & Udacity

Coursera co-founders Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller (both computer science professors at Stanford University) describe their for profit company as ‘social entrepreneurship’.

Since their first course launched in March 2012, Coursera has partnered with 35 universities in 8 countries to offer 206 courses covering subjects in: biology; business and management; computer science; economics and finance; law; mathematics; medicine; and statistics. The Experimental Genome Science course offered by professors from the University of Pennsylvania is a great example to look at. Each course offers access to lectures, powerpoint slides and interactive homework exercises. Due to the potential class size, there is no direct one on one time with the teacher, but some courses offer feedback from peer review assessment.  Coursera courses are currently free and have attracted nearly 2 million students so far.

Another for-profit company, Udacity, was launched in February 2012 by Stanford scientists Sebastian Thrun, David Stavens, and Mike Sokolsky. Offering a similar platform to Coursera, Udacity now offers 14 courses on: physics; mathematics; statistics; and how to build a startup.

Not-For-Profit MOOCs: edX

Not for profit edX is a joint project between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University.

It is funded by investments from both institutions and run by Anant Agarwal of MIT and Alan M. Garber from Harvard. The first edX course was offered in March 2012. They have since added the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Texas system to the family; and in Autumn 2012 launched 7 courses on chemistry, computer science and statistics. edX aims to use open source software, not just videos to present courses. Students can access the course for free, but must pay for a certificate of completion.

Not-For-Profit Non-MOOC: Khan Academy

The not-for-profit Khan Academy—created in 2006 by former hedge fund analyst Salman Khan—is not considered a MOOC because it does not offer organised courses, but provides 3500 different 10 minute educational videos on YouTube. These videos cover subjects in areas of mathematics, science, computer science, finance and economics; and each video contains interactive exercises which can be broken down step by step. Questions and discussions are listed under each video, and can provide some of the most pertinent information on this platform. Here’s a quintessential example: Embryonic Stem Cells.

The great thing about this platform is that students are given statistics on how they learn: what they spend most time on; when they learn best; and which information they retain. Teachers and tutors can also use this feature to track student performance. Khan Academy videos are free to access and have been viewed over 200 million times. And while the majority of MOOCs are currently only offered in English, the Khan Academy is leading the pack here with many videos translated into 21 different languages .

Open Education & Science

Offering quality education to millions of people worldwide is profound for its potential impact on science.

Open education will allow scientists to easily and quickly learn about subjects outside their field of expertise, facilitating cross-disciplinary pollination, which is known to fuel major breakthroughs. Academic scientists can also use MOOCs and Khan Academy to learn basic business skills to help transition to industry. More importantly, increasing the number of people who understand science will effectively broaden our peer base and, coupled with community labs, will facilitate the emergence of citizen science.

About the author

Leah is the editor for the San Diego chapter of the Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable and a post-doc at the Sanford Burnham Medical Research Institute in San Diego where she is researching cardiac aging using the fruit fly. She is interested in all things to do with the heart, as well as the exciting changes which are occurring in the scientific and biotech communities. In a previous life, Leah practised as an emergency veterinarian in both Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. Follow Leah on twitter @leahcanscience.

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