The Benefits of SPOCs: Small Private Online Courses4 min read

It took one year for the educational ecosystem to go do a 180 on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course). Where 2012 was declared ‘The Year of the MOOC,’ 2013 had people ask whether or not ‘MOOCS are already over?‘ The reason for this shift was a study done by the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, which pointed out that only 4% of students completed online classes and that engagement dropped dramatically after a few weeks. Innovation never idles, though, and in 2013 the term Small Private Online Course (SPOC) was coined, referring to a version of a MOOC used locally with on-campus students.

Experts now agree that SPOCs have the potential to be the most relevant and disruptive innovations coming out of the booming popularity of the MOOC. But what is a SPOC and how what is its place in the online learning space?

The Benefits of SPOCs over MOOCs
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SPOCs versus MOOCs

The main difference between MOOCs and SPOCs is that instead of scaling up, SPOCs scale down. They offer tailor-made courses to smaller groups of people, instead of general courses to thousands of students.

In other words, a SPOC is an internal MOOC, in which students with a certain institution, faculty or course make use of several features of online learning. This means they can make use of many of the proven online teaching approaches, but combine that with classroom sessions designed for smaller groups of people. In practice, this means that SPOCs are mediated by the computer, not programmed into the computer like MOOCs.

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Therefore, in most cases, SPOC students enjoy a much more personal approach than MOOC students. Unlike in massive online courses, they can participate in dialogues with teachers and students. The focus therefore isn’t so much on quantity, but on quality. For the educator this means that s/he is able to more fully engage with a targeted group of interested students. Because of this, SPOCs support educational programs and philosophies such as blended learning and flipped classroom learning.

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We have a feeling Star Trek’s Spock was aware of the benefits of combining online teaching with classroom interaction, as he already said decennia ago:

Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them.

The other difference is cost. Because of this focus on quality and interaction, most SPOCs are not free. But as HarvardX faculty director Robert Lue points out: “If you just want the content, great, it’s there for free. If you want human feedback from an expert, who has to be paid to do this, then that might cost something.”

The Effectiveness of a SPOC

The experiments which have already been done with SPOCs have shown that they’re a great tool to improve student engagement. Terry Fisher, WilmerHale professor of intellectual property law, began teaching SPOCs in 2013. By his second year, 80 percent of the students who logged on for the first seminar attended the final seminar. And not only that, 41 percent of enrolled students took the exam and passed it.

HarvardX’s project lead Summer Marion furthermore noticed that the average grade on student memos improved between the first and last asssignments. According to her, this improvement can be explained by an increase in the quality and quantity of feedback a teacher can give when classes are smaller.


SOWISO’s platform for interactive, personalized online mathematics teaching is very often used in a SPOC setting as well, as our platform focuses on the following educational values:

  • Smaller, local groups
  • Blended learning & flipped classroom
  • Promote teacher-student interaction, online as well as offline
  • Combine online resources and technology with personal engagement between educators and learners
  • Practice, train or take exams anywhere

Many higher education institutions therefore use SOWISO to add a digital practice platform with learning analytics to facilitate and improve on their already succesful classroom sessions.

In Conclusion

SPOCs combine age-old educational and pedagogical principles with a new ecosystem built around technology. They combine the best of both online and offline learning; they are based on the pedagogical principles that have proven to be immensily effective (deep learning through thoughtful interaction with real people), but facilitate said FTF learning with features you can only see in the online or digital world.

As Philip Dawson writes: “if a MOOC is like an exercise bike, the SPOC adds a personal trainer.”

Let’s talk again soon,


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