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MOOCs by Discipline: Are there Differences?

I have been contemplating if online learning differs by discipline, especially after reading a few studies on the topic. One of the studies (Xu & Jaggars, 2013), found:
The subject areas in which the negative coefficients for online learning were weaker than average in terms of both course persistence and course grades (indicating that students were relatively better able to adapt to online learning in these subjects) were computer science, the applied professions, and natural science.
Are the STEM fields that different, in terms of pedagogy and goals, from the humanities? Of course, we could certainly argue that the sciences are often taught divorced from ethics and humanistic concerns, but the teaching methods, objects, and outcomes assessments are my primary concern when reading such studies.

Do Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) work better in the STEM fields than in the humanities?

The coding course I'm currently working through is offered by a Russian institution. The blog and notes are in both Russian and English ( and the podcast/iTunes U content is in English. So, this is not an example of a U.S. corporation or university — there are computer courses from universities in China, India, South Africa, and a really great course series from Brazil.

Recently, I've been discussing writing instruction versus other topics with colleagues. I find they view the STEM fields, and some other topics, as simple matters of rote memorization. Assessment, they imagine, can be performed adequately with multiple choice exercises or simple fill-in-the-blank tests.

When I talk to colleagues, some of them mistakenly state that there is "one right answer" when programming, but that is not the case. There are "best practices" and "standards" but you can solve one problem in countless ways — some better than others. Consider a most simple assignment: average two numbers. I could write an absurd amount of code with variables, pointers, and custom functions, or I could write one line of code with the values and format embedded (roughly, printf("'%.1f'",(5+9)/2); ).

To me, this is much like academic writing. Some students meander and struggle with organization. They over-think, trying too hard. We have to help them understand the norms of the genre, while helping them think about problems more systematically. Teaching programming, you have to guide students towards clarity and proper exception handling. A multiple choice test cannot help judge how effectively a student solves a programming problem, a higher-level skill than memorizing keywords (nouns and verbs) or syntax (grammar) of coding.

My question, then, is what are the differences I am overlooking?

STEM courses are not taught effectively, based on some of the comments of my writing colleagues. Typically, half of engineering, programming, and science second-year students do not complete their degrees. That means half "drop out" of their majors. These students often leave the STEM fields entirely, not merely switching speciality or interest area within the STEM umbrella.

STEM courses are notorious for large lectures, intense labs, and lots of competition. The professors brag about high failure rates and low exam scores — those are points of pride.

Personally, I prefer the MOOC and online course models because they lack the intensity of STEM lecture halls. I don't feel like I am going to be insulted for the half-dozen failed attempts at a programming problem. Then, once I solve the problem, a lab leader (a grad student) isn't going to berate me for using the "wrong" approach to a problem. Online, I'm finding people politely write that I should reconsider my solution and think about why a pointer might be better than a passed variable. There are discussions, the same feeling I used to have when using the USENET to seek help with programming issues.

If programming courses are better online than on-campus, either the STEM fields are approaching online education more effectively… or their traditional courses are particularly horrible. Twice a month, a join local "Cocoaheads" ( to discuss software development. A few weeks ago, members were discussing how mediocre their university programming courses had been — there seemed to be a consensus that professors didn't understand "real world" programming. The MOOCs, it was suggested, seem to be addressing the problems developers encounter as practitioners. When I asked about other courses, the programmers talked about the joys of traditional courses in music, history, and literature. They preferred online coding courses and face-to-face humanities courses.

Maybe writing instructors do embrace more effective pedagogies than STEM fields. We certainly serve more students (every student, at many campuses) and we must do so without failing half our classes — or we would be considered failures, too.

For STEM fields, the "distance" offered by virtual settings seems to help students. In writing courses, that same distance is a detriment to our dominant pedagogies. Are current STEM pedagogies simply that bad?

Again, I am merely brainstorming on these issues because I still prefer teaching writing in a classroom, while I prefer learning new programming content online. There must be an explanation, especially since I am not alone in these biases. And I do teach online and hybrid writing courses… but they seem less engaging than face-to-face writing courses, no matter how many extras I enable — forums, chats, video, podcasts, and so forth.


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