MOOCs Could Help 2-Year Colleges and Their Students, Says Bill Gates

October 03, 2013

Community colleges have generally cast a wary eye toward massive open online courses, or MOOCs. But a relatively new model, which "flips" homework and classwork by incorporating outsourced lectures, could help struggling students and make colleges more efficient, Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told a packed gathering of community-college leaders here on Wednesday.

Mr. Gates urged them to provide resources to instructors who wanted to experiment with flipped classrooms and other techniques for integrating technology into their teaching.

"I'd be the first to say this is a period of experimentation, but we'll learn much faster if people jump in and engage," he told attendees at the Association of Community College Trustees' leadership meeting, which drew nearly 2,000 trustees, presidents, and administrators here this week.

Mr. Gates, one of the world's most famous people to not complete college, urged everyone in the audience to sign up for at least one MOOC. He has done so many times. "For a dropout, I've taken a lot of courses," he said.

The flipped MOOC is a variation of the flipped-classroom concept, in which instructors assign videotaped lectures to students, who then do what once was considered homework in class.

As MOOC lectures evolve, the average classroom professor will have a hard time competing, and the traditional lecture will seem antiquated, Mr. Gates suggested. "The quality of those lectures, as they go through the competitive process, will be extremely good," he said. "No individual performance is likely to come up to that level."

Remedial Students Benefit

Mr. Gates acknowledged that many faculty members felt threatened by suggestions that their lectures could be outsourced to professors at elite institutions, which currently produce much of the MOOC content available.

"Of course it's quite controversial, what software can take over, but once you get a great pool of lectures out there that incorporate problem solving and drill practice, this frees up time" for more-personalized instruction in the classroom, Mr. Gates said.

With more work done at home and online, students could spend less time on campuses, freeing up classroom space to accommodate more students, he said. That approach works well, he added, with remedial mathematics, where only about 10 percent of students who start courses end up getting two-year degrees within three years.

Computer systems can generate an infinite number of worksheets with embedded quizzes, as well as with tips that instructors could then review to determine what students are struggling with, he said. In online lectures, questions pop up every three to five minutes, to keep students alert and to make sure they are ready to move on to the next section.

They can work at their own pace, focusing on specific topics rather than having to move in lock step through a remedial-math sequence with students who might be having trouble with other parts.

Many of the projects Mr. Gates described have received financing from the Gates Foundation, which has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into efforts to increase college-completion rates.

Community-college trustees, many of whom said they were unfamiliar with MOOCs before the meeting, also heard from leaders of Coursera and edX, two of the best-known MOOC providers.

Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera, said students could spend less time on the campus if they were enrolled in courses that incorporated free online content. That would help completion efforts in states like California, where students are struggling to get into the classes they need to graduate.

Failure rates have dropped in the flipped classes that edX has piloted at colleges, Rebecca Petersen, director of research at edX, told the group.

Shanna Smith Jaggars, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College, said the center's studies had shown that poor and minority students struggle in online courses but that a flipped MOOC model held promise, even for remedial courses.