13.12.12 - 53,000 enrolled students, close to 10,000 certificates issued: the first MOOC offered this autumn by EPFL on the Coursera platform has been a success. The following is a discussion with the course author, Martin Odersky, the inventor of the computer programming language Scala.

There are very few in the world who can boast of teaching tens of thousands of students at the same time. Martin Odersky, Professor in the Laboratory of Programming Methods at EPFL, is one of them. This fall during seven weeks, he gave the first MOOC –Massive Online Open Course – organized by the school on the platform, Coursera. With the subject of the computer programming language, Scala, that he created himself, his course enjoyed enormous success. More than 53,000 people enrolled and 9'700 earned the certificate of completion. The course will certainly be renewed in Autumn 2013. Martin Odersky is even thinking of doing a second part.

– Did you expect such a success?

Not of this magnitude, even if previous experiments at some universities, such as Stanford or certain institutions in Australia, have shown the potential for this form of instruction. What surprised me most was the involvement and motivation of these people, and ultimately the success rate. Close to 10'000 students obtained this certificate in only two months, that’s more than in my entire career!

– Could you provide a profile of these students?

According to a survey we conducted, they come from all parts of the world – the United States, Russia, England, and Germany, just off the top of my head. Emerging countries such as India or Brazil were also well represented. The same was true for Switzerland with a few hundreds of students, 140 from EPFL. But more importantly, 85% of these people already have a university degree, and who therefore already have a real interest in the subject.

– For you, what is very different from traditional teaching?

Alone in front of the computer, without an audience, it’s really something else! On a daily basis, the preparation and the management of these MOOCs generates a lot of work for my team and me. And then, it had to be invented and adapted along the way. For example, we realized after a few weeks that it was necessary to hire an editor, someone who could bring an external point of view and indicate what wasn’t working, what wasn’t understandable, and to bring our attention to points in need of improvement.

– Does the lack of direct contact with a professor pose a problem?

With the help of my doctoral assistants, we have established a system of emails and internet forums. The students can also respond to each other. To date, 2,800 discussions have been started, creating almost 12,000 posts! It is true that initially, the use of these forums meets with some resistance, because it requires seeing learning from a new angle. For example some regret not being able to immediately ask the professor questions. But those who don’t are often happy to find that they receive satisfactory and rapid responses through the Internet.

– Do you believe we are moving toward generalized online studies?

I think that the direct contact remains very important, that the professor acts as a role model for students. The challenge is to find the best way to combine these two methods of teaching, each with its own benefits.

– What do you think are the main benefits of these MOOCs?

MOOCs open, for example, new opportunities to many of our listeners from countries where this kind of knowledge is not easily accessible or is not up to date. I also hope that these discussions in the forums create a large network and function as a kind of “pot” of knowledge, where students as well as other professors can come share or seek new ideas. The University of Helsinki in Finland has accepted my course credits in their curriculum, and we are in discussion with several other institutions. This permits us to imagine that we may one day earn a degree at several universities simultaneously. We are truly at the gates of a whole world of possibilities.