Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are all the rage today. Some people see free online courses as a convenient way to introduce statistical concepts to tens of thousands of students who would not otherwise have an opportunity to learn about data analysis. Whereas 2013 is the International Year of Statistics, the New York Times christened 2012 the “year of the MOOC,” citing the more than one million students who took online courses (across all subjects) during 2012.
Impressive numbers. But what if I tell you that there was a statistics course that attracted 1.2 million students by itself? Furthermore, what if I tell you that the course was offered in 1960?
The story begins in 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I, the world's first artificial satellite. In response, the US government poured money into math and science education. Many of the nation’s top scientists developed new courses aimed to educate teachers and students in the fundamentals of math and science.
One of those scientists was Frederick Mosteller, a statistician at Harvard and a future president of the American Statistical Association, who wrote an elementary textbook on probability and statistics. His book was so popular that he was asked to be the lecturer for a nationally televised version of his course, to be shown on an NBC program known as Continental Classroom. The probability and statistics course was part of the third season of the show, which had featured physics and chemistry as topics for the first two seasons.
195 television stations broadcast the 30-minute show at 6:30 a.m. every weekday. More than 75,000 students took the course for credit through a nationwide arrangement with 320 colleges and universities. Exams were mailed to the colleges and administered by a local teacher who served as a course assistant. About 1.2 million people viewed the course for no credit by watching their local NBC affiliate station.
As is the case for today’s MOOCs, it is doubtful that all of the people who took the course mastered the material. However, the fact that 1.2 million people viewed the course is impressive. Today’s MOOCs have not managed to attract that many students, even though they have several advantages over Mosteller’s televised course. Today’s students can watch (and rewatch!) video lectures whenever it is convenient, rather than at 6:30 each morning. Furthermore, Internet technology provides today’s MOOCs with a global audience that can interact with each other and with teaching assistants 24/7.
Because the Internet had not been invented yet, it is a stretch to classify Mosteller’s course as “online.” However, it was definitely massive and open, so perhaps I should call it a MOC instead of a MOOC. Whatever you call it, Fred Mosteller’s Continental Classroom deserves to be remembered as a daring experiment that introduced many of the ideas for distance learning that are still being used 50 years later in the Internet Age.
For additional details on Continental Classroom see The Pleasure of Statistics: The Autobiography of Frederick Mosteller, from which most of the information in this article was taken (p. 259-264). The same book contains many more interesting stories about Mosteller, one of the preeminent statisticians of the 20th century.