Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Motives for online learners examined

October 5, 2015

As Yale increases its online presence through Massive Open Online Courses, a new study shows that more people are using these classes to advance their professional careers rather than to pursue academic goals — a finding that may be surprising at a University that prides itself on the liberal arts and spurns pre-professionalism.

A study of over 50,000 online learners conducted this month by Coursera — an online company headed by former University President Richard Levin that offers online lectures from professors at over 100 universities — found that 52 percent of Coursera users surveyed said they took online courses to improve their professional careers, while only 28 percent of respondents turned to Coursera for academic benefits. Professors interviewed said they were not surprised by the study’s findings, but noted that certain academic fields attract more career-minded learners, while others, like the humanities, will likely keep drawing those interested in learning for its own sake. And while faculty said the online courses extend Yale’s reach to an untapped international community of learners, some argued that an online course cannot replace a classroom experience.

“Those courses that tend to be more STEM-oriented tend to serve a younger demographic and a demographic that is degree- or vocation-driven,” said music professor Craig Wright, adding that Coursera humanities courses like the one he teaches on classical music appeal mostly to people who are taking the class for fun rather than for credit.

Art history professor Diana Kleiner expressed a similar sentiment, stating that while some of the students who enroll in her online Roman Architecture class are professional architects, others are Ph.D. candidates or even tourists planning trips to Italy. In humanities courses like hers, Kleiner said, there are fewer people who take the course for professional reasons. Some students are so engaged with the topic that they have taken it three times, she added.

Professors said the online courses have allowed them to reach students in faraway places such as Syria and England. But they also noted that some aspects of face-to-face learning cannot be replicated through the Internet.

“The personal experience [of a classroom] allows you to establish a one-on-one bond with the instructor and the learner, and that’s a powerful motivator,” Wright said.

Political science professor Ian Shapiro GRD ’83 LAW ’87 said that because MOOCs are filmed in a studio, he had to change his teaching style to fit the new medium. When he filmed his course “Moral Foundations of Politics” for Coursera, he used two actors as mock students to make the experience feel more natural and personal to the viewer. The experience taught him to reflect more on his own in-classroom teaching style, he said.

“If you give your lecture staring into a camera, you come across as someone who’s selling real estate at two in the morning,” Shapiro said. “[Filming this course] really shook me out of complacency about teaching. There are a lot of ways to improve your teaching if you really think about it.”

This spring, Coursera will add French professor Howard Bloch’s course on Cathedrals, School of Medicine professor Anees Chagpar’s GRD ’14 course on Breast Cancer Awareness, and Divinity School professor Bruce Gordon’s course on the history of Western Christianity. Lucas Swineford, executive director of the Yale Office of Dissemination & Online Education, said Yale expects to add around five new courses to Coursera each year.

As the program continues to expand, Kleiner said, professors will be able to do more than bring their classroom experience to the online platform — they will be able to transfer lessons from the online platform back to the classroom as well.

“They’re teaching, I’m learning. I’m teaching and they’re learning,” Kleiner said.