Educators create online courses for the same reasons that they became teachers to begin with: to educate students, broaden their awareness of the world and thereby improve the students’ lives. And with massive open online courses (MOOCs), educators can now reach many more students at a time. But MOOCs offer many other benefits to the education community, including providing valuable lessons to the instructors who teach them.
Online courses inherently allow students to create their own pathways through the material, which forces educators to think about the content in new ways. And MOOCs offer professors fresh opportunities to observe how their peers teach, learn from one another’s successes and failures and swap tactics to keep students engaged. This is, in turn, makes them better teachers.
MOOCs are still the wild west of higher education, and there is no “one size fits all” approach to building one. At Coursera, we’ve been working with educators as they experiment with designing courses for this new format, and for a student body of unprecedented proportions. (For example, Duke University’s Think Again: How to Reason and Argue  by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Ram Neta has more than 180,000 enrolled students.) We’re reimagining many aspects of what it means to teach a course, ranging from lecture delivery, to assignments, to strategies for engaging the online community of students.
While there are many resources for teachers to learn from when approaching online education, we’ve become aware that there is still a need for a central space for professors to share successful practices, ask each other questions, and showcase examples of what’s worked and what hasn’t in their online classes. Recently, we launched a course called Teaching a MOOC, open to all of the professors on the Coursera platform (we’ll be launching a free, public version soon). It functions like any of the courses we offer, including video lectures that offer guidelines for developing an online course for the first time, discussion forums and a gallery where professors can see examples from other classes. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
An educator who’s been teaching in a traditional classroom format faces many challenges and unknowns when creating an online course. The lecture creation process is different. The peer-graded homework is different. The process for managing your “classroom” is different. Even the copyright law requirements are different. Jeremy Adelman, a Princeton University professor who teaches A History of the World Since 1300 , explains, “When you lecture into a recording box, it’s different from lecturing to students in person. I have a teaching style that relies on energy from students, and I had to figure out strategies that would transcend [that style] for my class on Coursera.”
Adelman discovered that in putting his course online, he became more focused on what students are experiencing, even though he wasn’t in direct contact with them. “When I lectured, I had to ask myself at all times ‘What is it that I want my students to learn?’ In the old-fashioned lecture hall I was an entertainer, more self-focused rather than teaching-focused, but I was not conscious of this dynamic until I put a course online for the first time,” he says. “For me, the lectures alone were a source of continuous learning and adaptation.”
Throughout the entire MOOC creation process, educators must constantly be student-focused, figuring out what is the most useful content for their students to experience next. With no admissions office, online students are vastly more diverse than the students in a typical college classroom. They vary in educational background, learning ability, and culture. Students are also at different points in their life, and range from teenagers to working professionals to retirees, and may have different learning goals. Educators have to make classes accessible without underestimating student ability.
Stanford professor Scott Klemmer was pleasantly surprised by his experience teaching a Human-Computer Interaction  course. His class was the first to use peer grading (in fact, he worked with Daphne Koller and me to design Coursera’s current peer assessment system). After using self-assessment for six years in his class at Stanford, he thought there was “no way” that he could expect students to handle self- and peer-assessment online.
“But it worked amazingly well,” Klemmer explains. “When we surveyed students at the end of class, one of the things they rated highest, in terms of what taught them the most, was the act of assessing peers -- they found it extremely valuable. I put a huge amount of time into designing course materials based on rubrics and assessment techniques that I taught in my Stanford class on campus; I had no idea what it would mean to translate that into the online world.”
There has always been a tendency in distance education to focus on the physical barriers -- the distance between the professors and the students, and between the students themselves. Many people, including those in academia, believe there to be a broadcast quality to online lectures, with one person delivering lectures to students behind screens, where they can’t engage directly with the professor. They wonder, “If the professors don’t see their students, how can it be teaching?”
But through today's technological advancements, online courses are very much alive. They are part of an ecosystem that, if nurtured through community discussion forums, meetups, e-mails, and social media (like Google+ hangouts), can flourish and grow. This allows each class’s community to take on a life of its own, with a distinct culture that’s defined at least as much by the students as the instructor, and which even skillful instructors can only guide, but not control. Nearly every instructor that I’ve spoken to has been surprised by the deep desire of students to connect with each other as well as with the teaching staff and professor.
University of Michigan professor Eric S. Rabkin found his experience teaching Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World  incredibly enriching. “I had not anticipated the kindness and excitement I see in this large body of participants. Despite the potential for impersonality, I have received emails of thanks, of enthusiasm, of discovery. I have replied to some of those and some of my replies have been re-posted to the forums by the recipients. The community knows I care and, at first astonishingly to me, cares back. They care enough not only to spend time with each other but to share their experiences, some even through blogs of their own, with the wider world,” he says. “Amazingly, this feels somehow like a family. Not like a nuclear family, but like a suddenly discovered distant city brimming with eager cousins one had never known before.”
“I have been [teaching] the same way for years -- for decades and decades -- without being mindful of the changes in technology, the changes in our students. Online courses blow up the old conventions. But I think it will take us a while to figure out what works and what doesn’t work,” says Princeton professor Jeremy Adelman.
University of Pennsylvania professor Al Filreis, who teaches Modern & Contemporary American Poetry , says that teaching online has given him his “most extraordinary pedagogical experience” in 30 years of teaching. “The course is rigorous and fast-paced, and the material is difficult, but the spirit of curiosity and investigation among the students produced very good results,” he says. “Several eminent poetry critics joined the course to rate the quality of the students' critical writing and came away very impressed -- and surprised. We discovered that a qualitative, interactive humanities course can indeed work in the MOOC format."
With MOOCs, there is so much more potential for educators to go into each other’s classrooms and share resources with their peers. We’re seeing this happen more and more, especially when it comes to professors adapting online course structures from other professors.
“Online education means that I have shared more stories with fellow professors about teaching than I had in the eight years I’ve spent teaching on campus,” says Stanford professor Scott Klemmer.
We might not have an answer to the question “What defines a high-impact MOOC?” just yet, but universities and professors who have taken the plunge are constantly learning and growing from their experiences. And what we’re seeing emerge from the trenches is an exciting new breed of education.
Andrew Ng is a co-founder of Coursera and a computer science faculty member at Stanford University. He is also director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, the main AI research organization at Stanford. In 2011, he led the development of Stanford University's main MOOC platform, and also taught an online machine learning class that was offered to over 100,000 students, leading to the founding of Coursera. Ng's goal is to give everyone in the world access to a high quality education, for free. His Twitter handle is @AndrewYNg .