By Published: Dec. 1, 2017


Whenever CU professor Robert Mazzeo offers “Exercise Physiology,” an upper-level undergraduate course popular with aspiring doctors, it fills quickly. So does the waiting list. He and a colleague each teach the class once a year to a combined total of about 230 students.

In June, Mazzeo, a member of the integrative physiology faculty and an avid tennis player, introduced an online version of the course called “The Science of Exercise” that also has proven popular — on a vastly greater scale and far beyond Boulder.

By early November, more than 35,000 people worldwide had at least sampled the course, a MOOC, or massive open online course. Nearly 800 were on track to finish it, many for fun and at no cost, others for a certificate of completion and a $49 fee. A new cohort of students enrolls every two weeks. There is no cap on enrollment.

“Based on the number of new students joining each week, ‘Science of Exercise’ is on track to be the most popular course in the history of CU,” said Cory Pavicich (Engl, Hum’04) of CU’s Office of Strategic Initiatives, which helps faculty design MOOCs.

MOOCs emerged about a decade ago. The 2012 debut of delivery platforms with ties to Stanford, Harvard and MIT led to a sustained burst of attention and a New York Times headline dubbing it “The Year of the MOOC.” The medium was hailed as a way to offer online learning to mass audiences at minimal or no cost, amid intensifying concerns about the high cost of traditional campus-based higher education.

The hype has died down, but MOOCs have shown they’re here to stay and that they can coexist with campus-based instruction while drawing huge numbers of additional off-campus learners. Coursera, one of the most prominent MOOC platforms, edX and Udacity now offer thousands of courses, commonly developed by professors at established universities, including CU Boulder.

After a modest start in MOOC development in 2013, when CU introduced its first four courses, including “Introduction to Power Electronics” and “Comic Books and Graphic Novels,” the university is rapidly growing its slate. As of November, nearly 25 MOOCs developed at CU Boulder were available on Coursera, the university’s main platform partner. By 2020, the electrical engineering department alone expects to add at least 50 more.

“MOOCs were once branded the death-knell of the university and then they were proclaimed dead, but, in reality, they remain a fascinating field of play,” said English professor William Kuskin, who as vice provost and associate vice chancellor for strategic initiatives oversees MOOC development. “It’s an arena that uniquely merges teaching and research in ways capable of reaching the entire globe.”

The hype has died down, but MOOCs are here to stay.

MOOCs are just one form of online education, and not the only one offered by CU Boulder. The School of Continuing Education offers a variety of paid online courses open to the public, for example, and the campus has eight fully online graduate degree programs, mostly in engineering. But MOOCs are proliferating fastest, largely because production requires only one professor and a small team, and most of the faculty work is up front rather than continuous.

Besides “Science of Exercise,” CU Boulder MOOCs include “Kinematics: Describing the Motions of Spacecraft,” “Graphic Design,” “Business Analytics for Decision Making” and “The Dynamics of Group Communication.” Others scheduled for debut are “Social and Emotional Learning and the Teacher,” “Roots and Shoots,” a collaboration with the Jane Goodall Institute, and “Active Optical Devices.”

“The mission of a university should be to provide educational opportunities to students and reach as many as possible,” said Juliet Gopinath, the electrical engineering professor who developed the optical devices MOOC. “The online forum allows us to reach non-traditional students and provide opportunities to those for whom it might be otherwise impossible. Personally, I also hope that it helps underrepresented groups as well as those in Third-World countries who struggle to find the time and opportunity to receive an education.”

As the name MOOC suggests, a MOOC ("massive open") is easy to join. Anyone with an internet connection can participate by visiting a provider website, such as, registering, picking a course and clicking the first lesson. Learners can watch instructional videos and consume other course materials (readings, quizzes, projects) for free. To be evaluated and eligible for a certificate of completion, students pay a fee, typically less than $100 on Coursera.

Two years ago, Mazzeo hadn’t even heard of MOOCs. When he did, from Russell Moore, the university provost, Mazzeo seized on the potential for propagating the core message of his teaching and research — that “exercise is medicine” — at an exponentially greater rate than possible on campus.

All this means the campus and MOOC versions of Mazzeo’s course complement rather than compete with each other.

Working with a CU team of learning design experts, Mazzeo condensed and simplified the lectures from his semester-long campus course, shot a series of videos and developed new quizzes that could be scored by software or other students in the course. Within months, thousands of people around the world were enrolling in “Science of Exercise.”

“I’m reaching populations I never thought I’d reach in my career,” said Mazzeo, who marvels over students’ locations, which he surveys on an electronic dashboard on his office computer: Botswana, Qatar, Algeria, Nepal, Iraq, India and scores of others. At least two-thirds of all people enrolled in CU Boulder’s MOOCs live outside the U.S., according to Pavicich.

All this means the campus and MOOC versions of Mazzeo’s course complement rather than compete with each other.

“These are truly new students for the University of Colorado Boulder,” Pavicich said.

Mazzeo’s MOOC covers the same basic concepts as his in-the-flesh course, “Exercise Physiology.” But it’s not the same course, and isn’t intended to be.

The MOOC, which consists of four modules that can be completed at the student’s pace within a 180-day period, is shorter and less technical, for example. It involves fewer and less-detailed tests. And successful completion of the MOOC doesn’t confer CU academic credit.

Kuskin’s group believes MOOCs serve the university’s fundamental mission and key interests in several ways.

They fulfill the broad mandate of providing public education, and they amplify CU’s renown. At least one CU department has reported that its MOOCs have helped attract full-time, degree-seeking students to campus.

Teaching through new media also prompts professors to reevaluate how and what students ought to learn. This can lead them to modify and improve traditional classroom courses.

And MOOCs are a source of revenue, modestly so far for CU, but with potential for significant growth.

Many universities have raced ahead in online education, among them Arizona State and the University of Florida, which bring in tens of millions of dollars through their programs, including online degree programs. The University of California Berkeley offers an online master’s program in public health, and Georgia Tech offers online master’s programs in computer science and analytics. MIT offers a pair of online “MicroMasters” credentials that can lead to admission to an accelerated on-campus master’s degree.

In time, CU Boulder expects to increase its share of paid online certificates and degree programs, according to Pavicich. MOOCs offer a foundation for that effort while immediately serving a greater number and variety of learners than the university ever has, he said — both newcomers to higher education and people who simply want more of it.

“We are past the point where you can assume you’re done learning when you’re 22 or 23,” Pavicich said. “You should expect to learn throughout your life.”


Illustration by Harry Campbell