Professor Wayne Whiteman is no stranger to MOOCs. He’s been involved with Georgia Tech’s transition to online teaching since the process began two years ago. He teaches a course in engineering mechanics, and has had students as young as 10 years old and as old as 70. He loves the “diverse audience,” and believes that anyone who wants to see how engineers can make the world a better place should start with his course.

We chatted with Whiteman about what has worked, what’s surprised him, and where he sees MOOCs going:

Tell us a little more about your course, and the decision to teach it online.
I teach basic engineering mechanics. We started with one course, and then broke the course into two parts, because we were finding that the best delivery for MOOCs is in 10-minute modules.

Now we offer two five-week courses instead of one ten-week course — it’s better for working professionals, and it’s easier to keep their attention for a few weeks.

Who is the target audience for this course? What should one expect from it?
It’s a wide range that can go from students 10 years of age to 70+. Most of the students are in their 20s and 30s. There are quite a few high school students who want to get a headstart on what they’ll learn in college, as well as older people reviewing material that they’ve learned earlier in life.

Students should expect bonafide college-level engineering classes. These are the same problems and homework that I would give my students at Georgia Tech. It’s not watered down.

Do you teach the same course to students on campus? If so, in what ways does the MOOC version differ from on-campus version?
What we’re finding is that the MOOC is not as enriching as the on-campus experience. On campus, there’s more repetition, and more opportunity for engagement. We have another campus in France, and we are planning to use the MOOC there to try and offer a more enriched, hands-on experience. Often, the MOOC students don’t get the same 1-1 experience.

What advice do you have for people taking your MOOC?
Immerse yourself and enjoy the subject. If you’re interested in how engineers make the world a better place, then this course is for you.

What have you enjoyed most about teaching this MOOC? What surprised you?
I love the diverse audience — we have students from all around the world, and of all ages. My favorite part is the discussion forums. Students are quick to help each other. That’s very enriching for me.

What’s surprised me is how invested the students are, despite the fact that the course is free. If students get a certain grade, then they receive a statement of accomplishment which doesn’t count as academic credit. It’s surprising how much students value that — people get upset if their assignments aren’t marked correctly.

How do you see MOOCs and their role in education evolve from here? Will universities offer credit for MOOCs? MOOC-based degrees?
That’s the $64,000 question. I am not sure if MOOCs will ever offer academic credit. Biggest thing that universities are struggling with is the business model. We are just not sure it’s sustainable with just signature track revenue. For accreditation, students are going to have to pay more money than $0.

Having said that, I believe that if a student can demonstrate to me the knowledge and skills they’ve acquired, I don’t care how they got it — MOOC, textbook, internet.

What’s an interesting fact about you that not many people know?
I’ve had a very varied career. I was in the army for 24 years, and taught at West Point. You don’t find a lot of people like me in academia — it’s helpful to have a different perspective.