Innovating with MOOCs

Thorp and Goldstein - Engines of InnovationYou’d be hard pressed to find anyone today who would claim colleges and universities aren’t important. But some are starting to wonder what universities will consist of in the near future. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) surged in popularity in 2012, even leading the New York Times to declare it the “year of the MOOC” as many of the world’s finest institutions, including UNC Chapel Hill, began utilizing emerging technologies to offer their classes to the broader public at no cost.

Soon, one of these classes will be cotaught by Buck Goldstein, coauthor, with Holden Thorp, of Engines of Innovation: The Entrepreneurial University in the Twenty-First Century, which is now available in a new second edition. In the book, Thorp and Goldstein argue that universities must use their ample resources to drive the changes that address society’s biggest challenges, including climate change, extreme poverty, and disease. “We want to walk the walk, not talk the talk,” Goldstein says of the course, which will be an extension of a traditional class the two taught on innovation. “The idea is to make things we wrote about in the book happen. This MOOC is an outgrowth of our ability to put ideas into practice.”

Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein
Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein. Photo by Dan Sears.

MOOCs are taught through a series of short video lectures and online assignments—including quizzes, tests, and peer-graded written assignments. Because the classes are free, enrollment can reach into the tens of thousands, creating real challenges for lecturers who can’t meet their students in person but must craft courses that reach across national borders, social lines, and varying levels of previous study. Completion rates were low for early MOOCs—often around 10%—and MOOCs do not count for college credit yet, but the possibilities are promising given the opportunities MOOCs can provide.

According to Goldstein, the most exciting part is the “opportunity is to reach a much broader audience.” Because his class with Thorp is on innovation, teaching it as a MOOC provides a unique opportunity to marry form and content. “We’re interested in the interactive aspect because innovation and entrepreneurship aren’t passive—they’re active,” he says. “Entrepreneurship is about impact and taking innovative ideas to fruition. The key notion of MOOCs is creating a global reach with an entrepreneurial mindset that allows opportunities in those spaces between innovation and execution that is key to social change.”

And that innovation will help universities maintain the role Thorp and Goldstein argue they should have in Engines of Innovation. “The creation of knowledge is best situated in the university. I don’t expect that to change. But MOOCs bring knowledge to a much broader audience and do so more effectively. You must think innovatively to do that. And that can improve the classroom.” In a blog post at the Huffington Post, Goldstein explains how the rigors of course planning necessary for a MOOC forced him to think carefully about his traditional classes, leading to new methods and materials that can benefit traditional students as well.

“The university has been around for a long time and will continue to be—but for that to happen, it must change. We need to jump in and participate. It’s a natural outgrowth of writing our book.”

You can jump in with them by signing up for the MOOC. It will be offered by Coursera in February 2014, and registration is now open at