Teaching Introduction to Sociology is almost second nature to Mitchell Duneier, a professor at Princeton: he has taught it 30 times, and a textbook he co-wrote is in its eighth edition. But last summer, as he transformed the class into a free online course, he had to grapple with some brand-new questions: Where should he focus his gaze while a camera recorded the lectures? How could the 40,000 students who enrolled online share their ideas? And how would he know what they were learning?
In many ways, the arc of Professor Duneier's evolution, from professor in a lecture hall to online instructor of tens of thousands, reflects a larger movement, one with the potential to transform higher education. Already, a handful of companies are offering elite college-level instruction -- once available to only a select few, on campus, at great cost -- free, to anyone with an Internet connection.
Moreover, these massive open online courses, or MOOCs, harness the power of their huge enrollments to teach in new ways, applying crowd-sourcing technology to discussion forums and grading and enabling professors to use online lectures and reserve on-campus class time for interaction with students.
The spread of MOOCs is likely to have wide fallout. Lower-tier colleges, already facing resistance over high tuition, may have trouble convincing students that their courses are worth the price. And some experts voice reservations about how online learning can be assessed and warn of the potential for cheating.
MOOCs first landed in the spotlight last year, when Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor, offered a free artificial-intelligence course, attracting 160,000 students in 190 nations. The resulting storm of publicity galvanized elite research universities across the country to begin to open higher education to everyone -- with the hope of perhaps, eventually, making money doing so.
The expansion has been dizzying. Millions of students are now enrolled in hundreds of online courses, including those offered by Udacity, Mr. Thrun's spinoff company; edX, a joint venture of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Coursera, a Stanford spinoff that is offering Professor Duneier's course and 200 others.
No one knows just how these massive courses will evolve, but their appeal to a broad audience is unquestioned: retirees in Indiana see them as a route to lifelong learning, students in India as their only lifeline to college-level work.
The professors involved face new challenges. "It was really intimidating at the beginning to do these lectures with no live audience, no sense of who was listening and how they were reacting," Professor Duneier said. "I talk about things like racial differences in I.Q., Abu Ghraib and public bathrooms, and I worried that my lectures might come across as examples of American ethnocentrism."
Feedback came quickly. When his first lecture went online, students wrote hundreds, then thousands, of comments and questions in online discussion forums -- far too many for Professor Duneier to keep up with. But crowd-sourcing technology helped: every student reading the forum could vote questions and comments up or down, allowing him to spot important topics and tailor his lectures to respond.
Top universities with courses like Professor Duneier's stand to gain, both in prestige and in their ability to refine their pedagogy; few seem worried about diluting their brand-name appeal. The risks are greater for lesser colleges, which may be tempted to drop some of their own introductory courses -- and some professors who teach them -- and substitute cheaper online instruction from big-name professors.
"We've reached the tipping point where every major university is thinking about what they will do online," said Peter McPherson, the president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. "In a way, the most important thing about these MOOCs from the top universities is that they provide cover, so other universities don't need to apologize about putting courses online."
In the rush to keep up, elite universities are lining up to join forces with a MOOC provider. Coursera, which began with Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford and the University of Michigan in April, currently leads the field with 33 university partners. But edX, too, is expanding rapidly -- the University of California, Berkeley, has joined, and the University of Texas announced that it would use edX courses for credit. Already, students in one Udacity class can get credit through the Global Campus of Colorado State University. Most MOOC providers are making plans to offer credit -- and charge fees for certificates and proctored exams.
This crowd-sourced version of college is seeping into every corner of academia. While the earliest MOOCs were concentrated in computer science and engineering -- subjects suited to computer grading -- Professor Duneier is one of the pioneers offering humanities courses, in which the whole grading process, from essays to exams, is handled by the students using grading criteria designed by the professor.
There are courses on modern American poetry (Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, is a student), health care policy and the Affordable Care Act (taught by Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel, a former health adviser to the Office of Management and Budget) and Introduction to Improvisation.
Professors delight in reaching more students in one course than they could otherwise teach in a lifetime. Dr. Ezekiel shows off a postcard from a student in Sri Lanka. Al Filreis, the poetry professor, tells of an 81-year-old Greek shut-in who got 180 responses to his essay on Emily Dickinson. There are stories of elderly students doing homework together at their assisted-living facility and Capitol Hill staff members taking the health policy course.
'The Wild West'
Professor Duneier has been thrilled. "Within three weeks, I had more feedback on my sociological ideas than I'd had in my whole teaching career," he said. "I found that there's no topic so sensitive that it can't be discussed, civilly, in an international community."
The online discussion forum spawned many global exchanges. Soon after Professor Duneier talked about social norms, using as his example the lack of public restrooms for street vendors -- including an embedded video of New York vendors -- students in Hong Kong, India, Russia and elsewhere commented on the situation in their own cities.
Meanwhile, around the world, study groups were forming. In Katmandu, Nepal, Dipendra K.C., who is 22, connected with four older classmates, meeting in person to prepare for the midterm and final. "We were looking at the lectures and the discussion forum and pointing out topics the professor was highlighting, to try to predict the questions on the exam," he said.
To create the feel of a Princeton seminar, Professor Duneier used a video chat room in which six or eight students -- Dipendra was one, and others came from Siberia or Iran or Princeton -- discussed the readings; other students, over the course of the week, could replay the video and comment.
For Doug MacKenzie, 34, a Philadelphia firefighter who was part of the seminar, the video chats with far-flung classmates were the highlight. "I was just thinking, this is really neat, to be able to talk to someone in Siberia," he said. "This class opened my eyes a little about how my parents raised me and why I behave in a certain way."
The price tag -- zero -- was crucial. "I've always wanted to go into a degree program, but the problem is that I don't have the money," said Mr. MacKenzie, who has taken four MOOCs.
Most MOOCs package their lessons in short segments, with embedded quiz questions to keep the viewer engaged, and provide instant feedback. But the approach is still experimental -- especially in the humanities.
"This is still brand new," Professor Duneier said. "It's still the Wild West."
And while there is a belief that students learn from assessing their classmates' work, no one knows how well the process works. The concept is simple: each student must score the work of five classmates to get their own score, the average of what their peers gave them. But the reality is trickier. What if students do not take scoring seriously? What if the rubric is unclear? Do peer assessments match the scores the professor would have given?
To find some answers, Professor Duneier and his assistants have painstakingly graded thousands of midterms and finals, comparing their scores with the peer graders'. When he saw the first batch of midterms, he realized that some students had provided unexpected responses that would not have earned many points on his planned rubric, despite their clearly understanding the material. So he tweaked the rubric, allowing for extra "makeup" points on some questions. But the computer tallied the regular and makeup points together, giving some students more total points than the exam was worth.
"I had to announce to the students that some had gotten scores that were higher than they should have been," he said. "And as data, the midterm scores are useless. But it helped us learn more about writing rubrics."
Now, months after the course ended, he and his assistants are hand-scoring the final exams, checking the scores they assign (he avoids the word "grades") against those given by students. So far, he has found an impressive correlation of 0.88. The average peer score was 16.94 of 24 possible points, compared with an average teaching-staff score of 15.64. Peer graders give more accurate scores on good exams than bad ones, they found, and the lower the score, the more variance among graders.
As with other MOOCs, less than 5 percent of those who enrolled in the sociology course completed it: 2,200 midterm exams and 1,283 final exams were submitted. Some students listened to all the lectures and did all the readings but did not take exams. There was no practical reason to take the exams, since Princeton -- unlike Udacity, edX or other universities working with Coursera -- does not give certificates of completion.
"I wouldn't be comfortable giving any kind of certificate until we know more about how it's working," Professor Duneier said.
Christopher L. Eisgruber, Princeton's provost, said that while his university's first four MOOCs were going well, he had no plans to offer credentials.
"Our primary goal in doing this is to find ways to improve education on our own campus, to take the passive experience of students scribbling notes while a professor talks, and have some lectures they can watch, to free up classroom time for more interactive activities," he said. "It's terrific that we can put information online for people to share, but we don't want to mislead them into thinking it's the same as a Princeton course."
In hand-grading the midterm, Professor Duneier and his assistants found that about 3 percent of the students had plagiarized from Wikipedia, lecture notes or other sources -- and that two students with the same last name submitted identical answers. (Even with thousands of exams, plagiarism was noticeable, since one person scored all responses to a particular question.)
So right before the final, Professor Duneier detailed the rules for a closed-book exam, realizing that international students might not share American concepts of plagiarism. As he recalled his instructions, it was clear how close he felt to this online class, these students he has never met.
"I said, 'Don't use your notes, don't Google, don't ask your wife,' " he said. "When I said, 'Don't ask your wife,' I pictured this couple, or maybe brother and sister, who had submitted identical papers, and I imagined them watching and being surprised, like, 'Hey, the professor's talking to us.' "
And on the final, the hand-scorers have not yet detected a single example of plagiarism.education
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.