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There’s a MOOC For That: How My Grad Students Complement Our Curriculum with MOOCs

In the higher education end of academia, we seem to be slowly moving past the knee-jerk negative reaction to MOOCs. Despite an understanding that MOOCs were not conceived as a replacement to traditional bricks and mortar institutions, at least initially, a substantive percentage of higher education institutions demonstrated their disdain for all that is MOOC.

Jeff Smith/ via Flickr

Jeff Smith/ via Flickr

Here is a story of how I envision that MOOCs and traditional higher education instruction can complement each other. As the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa and as an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Memphis, I am situated in both the higher academic and business worlds.  As such, my college asked me to participate in a focus group with area employers who hire University of Memphis graduates. The purpose of the focus group was to determine how the University could better prepare students for employment upon graduation. The number one issue raised by all focus group participants was the need for better communication skills, particularly in writing.

Without going into detail, the focus group point is very well taken. In my academic role, I chair or am a member of graduate committees that produce six or so graduate level dissertations or theses each year. Typically, at least half of the documents are in dire need of substantive copy editing, even in their final draft forms. Further, when I agree to increase the number of students who can enroll in my graduate seminars, I’m less concerned with overcrowding or an increased student-to-teacher ratio than with the number of poorly written papers I will need to wade through.

In response to this problem, two years ago I insisted that my advisees who needed to improve their writing skills must enroll in the one technical writing course available at the University of Memphis. The offering is an online course managed by a graduate student. In 2010, two of my graduate student advisees dutifully registered for the course, paid the extra $300.00 online fee and complained regularly about the content and quality of the course.

When I raised the student concerns with the chair of the English Department, he acknowledged that the offering was not suitable for teaching basic writing skills to graduate students. He conceded that the University of Memphis did not offer a course that met my two students needs.

Then last fall I came across the Writing in the Sciences MOOC at Coursera, taught by Kristin Sainani, an assistant professor at Stanford. I watched the videos and performed the exercises for the first two weeks of the eight-week course and found high quality lessons addressing precisely the skill set needed by many of my students.

At my suggestion, three of the eighteen students in my Museum Practices graduate seminar registered for the class last fall. All three students reported that the course helped improve their writing skills. Beyond the self-reporting, I observed that the writing of the three students dramatically improved throughout the semester.

The Writing in the Sciences MOOC was a classic win-win for all involved. When I contacted Dr. Sainani this spring, she said that she did intend to offer the course again this summer but regardless, the lectures from last fall would remain online at Coursera indefinitely. I noted to Dr. Sainani that even at a modest fee, I assumed the course would be very popular with students — considerably more popular than the online course my students were being charged $300.00 for at the University of Memphis.

The events around finding a suitable writing class also turned into an excellent teaching moment for my colleagues, some of whom were/are highly skeptical of the value of online education, especially of the MOOC variety. When I raised the success of the Writing in the Sciences MOOC, faculty questions included: How much does it cost? Nothing it’s free.  Who is this accredited by? The instructor is an assistant professor at Stanford University. How will the students get credit? They won’t. They can get a certificate of completion. The point of the MOOC is to increase student writing skills not obtain credit hours.

The punch line is that my students received training in an absolutely essential remedial skill that is not offered at the University of Memphis. The availability of the Writing in the Sciences MOOC raises another question: If this skill development is offered online through a MOOC, and the course meets a student’s needs, why should the University of Memphis develop such a course?

This single course offering has proven instructive to my departmental colleagues on the role that MOOCs, even as currently conceived, can play in higher education. As well, I routinely point my students to other MOOC offerings to complement their traditional classroom education.

MOOCs as reinforcement

I recently completed Leading Strategic Innovation in Organizations, taught by David Owens, a Vanderbilt Professor who also directs the University’s Executive Development Institute. This MOOC provided a fantastic point for discussion with my graduate student staff at the museum.  For example, change in programming or exhibits is typically heralded by some visitors and condemned by others. Dr. Owen’s MOOC organized a discussion about impediments to innovations from the perspective of the individual, group, society at large and technical considerations. Our graduate student staff working on the new programs who participated in this MOOC are better equipped to successfully innovate a change in our museum by incorporating the lessons in these extracurricular materials.

In general, if a MOOC offering might prove similarly helpful to a student I am advising, I would be negligent if I did not advise the student to enroll, simply because the course was not offered for credit hours by my academic unit. To date I have recommended that students enroll in a host of Coursera MOOCs ranging from digital education to systems analysis. Seemingly, the old phrase “there is an app for that” is being recast as “there is a MOOC for that.”

MOOCs can serve as an integral component of life-long and free-choice learning that complements and supports the traditional college degree in several respects:

  • Given today’s level of specialization in all fields, it is simply not possible for a single academic department to cover all of the educational needs in a student’s immediate career trajectory. Internships and single semesters spent at other academic institutions are a traditional response to getting outside help in this process. MOOCs can play a similar role. For example, elsewhere on this site, a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering describes how he used a computer science MOOC to extend the application of his formal studies.
  • I earned my graduate degree is in Anthropology about 20 years ago. At the time, my academic advisor wisely noted that once I had PhD in hand, I could make my own (free choice) decisions about my future (life-long) educational direction. For me, MOOCs in their many forms play an increased role in building on my formal university studies that ended long ago. My graduate students are already finding MOOCs useful in this regard.
  • I suspect that MOOCs will continue to increase in popularity for remedial skills as well, like the writing course I noted above. For example, typically students might be accepted into a graduate program with deficiencies typically in survey or introductory courses. Successful completion of a MOOC can readily remedy such deficiencies.

The knee-jerk negative response toward MOOCs is going the same way as those who swore they would never give up their IBM selectric typewiters. Higher education now has the opportunity to embrace MOOCs and be part of the discussion about what MOOCs will evolve into to best suit the task of education in the 21st century. Those institutions who choose to ignore the benefits of MOOCs and similar changes to the traditional education model will likely become as relevant in the future as manufacturers of 35mm film in a digital age.

Robert Connolly (1 Posts)

I am Robert Connolly – a transplant to Memphis, Tennessee, US, via Jackson, Mississippi, via Northeast Louisiana, via . . . where I live with my wife Emma and our rescue dogs Abbie (Irish Setter), Buddy (Big Old Dog), and Grace (Golden Retriever). We have four (step) children and eleven grandchildren and an assortment of pets spread between Jackson Mississippi and New Orleans, Louisiana. I am an educator/museum director/anthropologist/community activist and advocate, a combination that I enjoy immensely. Specifically, I am the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa in Memphis, Tennessee, U.S. and teach in the Anthropology Department at the University of Memphis, and am on the Advisory Board for the the Graduate Certificate Program in Museum Studies. My areas of work/interest include cultural heritage as a tool for empowerment, community service learning, applied anthropology, and expanding the educational box to more fully incorporate informal education and lifelong learning. I look forward to permanently relocating back home to New Orleans on July 1, 2017.


  1. Nice post. I had a couple of thoughts while reading it. While I agree that MOOCs should be considered as a serious alternative for addressing the issue of skill deficits in higher ed, I wonder about the writing training (or lack thereof) these students received as undergraduates (possibly even at the K-12 level). There isn’t a lot of time/resources to address remedial training at the graduate level when students should be focused on gaining specialized skills and knowledge in preparation for their careers. They should have the whole writing thing down when they get there, or at least mostly. If you get students who come in and need help with this, then a MOOC could suffice. But we can’t forget about addressing the root issues (which can get complicated when talking about public institutions with budget issues).

    You say: “Given today’s level of specialization in all fields, it is simply not possible for a single academic department to cover all of the educational needs in a student’s immediate career trajectory.” I think you mean graduate programs specifically, and I agree. But for undergrad training, writing is not just some ancillary, “nice to have” skill that departments can choose not to teach. It’s a fundamental competency that most people need to have for success in grad school (if they choose that route) and an overall successful career (yes, even more important than college sports, ahem). All undergraduate students should be required to take a writing course or two; or, as another option, writing training should be incorporated into all courses a student takes. This was the model that my undergrad used, which has been found to be a very effective approach.

    This deficit in writing skills likely extends beyond just your two or three students a year who need help in this area. I say this based on the proportion of your graduates who need help each year, and from my experiences as an undergraduate writing tutor. If we can’t do anything about it structurally, do you think that MOOCs could address it on a much larger scale?

    • Amy,

      Thanks for your thoughtful feedback. I agree with you wholeheartedly on the need for these skills to be developed before the graduate level. I primarily deal with two levels of students – Honors undergrad and general graduate. Quite consistently, the honors undergrads have a far higher level of communication skills than the average graduate student. I take this to mean that in part writing on the general undergraduate level is undervalued, but emphasized with advanced placement UG students. I don’t know this for a fact, but the assumption is the logical conclusion of my experiences.

      You are quite correct that my statement about specialization was meant to apply to graduate students who often operate in rather highly structured programs.

      Your final question is of critical importance. At this point, I don’t see the traditional public higher educational institutions making the changes to address the issue structurally. Student to faculty ratios are increasing, faculty course loads are increasing, all of which will continue to lead faculty to spend less time on each individual student’s development. There is no indication that recent funding cuts will be restored any time soon to ease the pressure on the above circumstance.

      Here is my own heresy on this issue – if undergraduate level writing skill development is a pressing need and requires greater individual attention, why not make the clases smaller and stop having overworked and underpaid adjuncts teaching these courses. Why not assign these pivotal development courses to assistant/associate/full professors? Perhaps the full-time faculty who teach large survey courses could turn these classes over to MOOCs. After all, if you were able to take Western Civ 101 or Geology 101 in a MOOC that had 50,000 people enrolled that had the same level of objective tests and lectures as with the current 100-300 person classrooms, what really is the difference? Back in the “good old days” (1970) I took Psychology 101 in a class of 1200 students. There were no lab sections. We all took scantron tests. No one complained then about the lack of individual attention the students were getting.

      Higher education faces an opportunity where it can embrace the best of the MOOC as we move into the future. The point is no longer a matter of thinking “outside the box” but “making the box bigger.” By the way, this is a concept I first heard from in a MOOC I recently completed called Leading Strategic Innovation in Organizations, taught by David Owens, a Vanderbilt Professor who also directs the University’s Executive Development Institute.

      MOOCs are not the solution to all problems. However, without question, MOOCs have a valuable role to play in the future of higher education. As I note in the first hyperlink in my above post, some of the objections raised to MOOCs by faculty are just outright silly and self-serving. We need to get beyond that. So sayeth Dorothy “We are not in Kansas anymore.”