Democratizing education: Massive open online courses benefit students on campus and around the world

In the fall of 2018, students in Michael Goldberg’s university seminar course had 42 additional classmates: entrepreneurs in Syria working to achieve business success. Over the course of the semester, the learners from both countries shared ideas via Zoom, culminating with the Case Western Reserve University students offering business recommendations to their Syrian peers.

The collaboration was an on-campus application of Goldberg’s massive open online course (MOOC), “Beyond Silicon Valley: Growing Entrepreneurship in Transitioning Economies.” Goldberg, an assistant professor of design and innovation, launched the course in 2014 as one of the university’s first MOOCs—low-cost online courses available to unlimited numbers of people worldwide.

Since gaining popularity in 2012, MOOCs have reshaped the terrain of virtual education. The format of these courses has varied over the years, yet one fact is constant: MOOCs enable individuals of all backgrounds to learn from renowned faculty who otherwise may not be financially or geographically accessible.

For example, the first two MOOCs from Case Western Reserve were led by Richard Boyatzis, a Distinguished University Professor and the H.R. Horvitz Professor of Family Business, and Michael Scharf, co-dean of the School of Law and the Joseph C. Hostetler – BakerHostetler Professor of Law—both eminent leaders in their fields. Combined, the two professors reached more than 130,000 people in their first courses.

Now six years in, the 10 courses—offered by faculty of Weatherhead School of Management, the School of Law, School of Medicine and the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing—collectively boast an impressive reach:

  • More than 2 million enrollees and visitors (those who view portions of the course content but don’t officially enroll)
  • Students from 215 countries
  • 60 percent of enrollees from outside the U.S.

As one of the trailblazers for these offerings at CWRU, Boyatzis is well-versed on their impact on the university’s international reputation. According to his research, 74 percent of the 110,000 people in his first course, “Inspiring Leadership Through Emotional Intelligence,” had never heard of Case Western Reserve. Since then, he said, increased visibility and enrollment have led to collaborative efforts with international organizations, a research contract with a major corporation, and even MOOC students choosing to enroll in on-campus degree and executive programs.

The faculty members who designed the MOOCs have seen them evolve in myriad ways. Goldberg’s CWRU-Syria hybrid course is just one such example. He also has been sponsored by the U.S. State Department to lead training seminars in 15 countries and published a digital book about his course. United Nations Peacekeeping Forces in three countries have incorporated “Women in Leadership: Inspiring Positive Change” by Diana Bilimoria, the KeyBank Professor and chair of the Department of Organizational Behavior, into training programs for female officers. Meanwhile, Scharf, creator of the MOOC “Introduction to International Criminal Law,” has collaborated with the International Criminal Tribunal Press to offer his MOOC to their members, and said he regularly gets press inquiries from them because of the class. The MOOC courses are valuable to graduate students on campus as well, who benefit from course materials and even take part in international trips made possible by MOOCs.

“Our MOOCs provide a potent experience for everyone involved, including those who only take some of the modules,” said Boyatzis, acknowledging that only a small portion of enrollees end up completing a course. More often, students tend to come and go from coursework as best suits their needs.

Looking ahead, MOOCs will remain an important means of reaching new learners and providing educational opportunities to students who otherwise may not be able to enroll in courses at CWRU.

“MOOCs could transform CWRU for the future in terms of hybrid programs using asynchronous education as part of them,” said Boyatzis, noting work is underway to incorporate augmented reality programming in arenas like coaching and skills training. In this way, MOOCs are not a stand-in for higher education, as some once speculated; instead, they serve to complement traditional approaches in a new way.

“MOOCs offer a unique path for designing college-level courses with lasting impact,” Goldberg explained. “They are an example of how technological empowerment paired with robust personal interaction can produce deep knowledge engagement.”