I Took a MOOC and I Liked It

One of the biggest conversations taking place at the intersection of technology and higher education is that of MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, a name taken from the gaming trend of MMORPGs. But you probably knew that.

A few weeks ago, Karen Symms Gallagher (dean of the Rossier School of Education at USC and Inside Higher Ed contributor) wrote a review on MOOCs that was anything but positive. My intent here is not to undermine her expertise, or her opinion. I can assume she has substantially more expertise than me. I do, however, in the spirit of the Supreme Court we’ve been paying so much attention to recently, want to offer a dissenting point of view to this particular strain of anti-MOOC argument.

Because I took a MOOC, and, well, I liked it.

Great courses from the world’s best

edX was founded in 2012 as a collaboration between Harvard and MIT (a formidable partnership to be sure), listing the following as their goals:

  • Expand access to education for everyone
  • Enhance teaching and learning on campus and online
  • Advance teaching and learning through research

I first ran into edX on accident, as I was stumbling through some articles on MOOCs just after work one day.  As a former Leadershaper whose “vision” was essentially a boiled down version of the above bullet points, I was immediately drawn to edX.

So I started shopping around the course catalog. For the uninitiated, edX provides two types of courses: “archived”, or already completed courses, and “live” courses. You can take archived courses at your own speed, but you get no recognition from it. Live courses, however, expire on a certain date and, as a result, award a certificate of mastery for satisfactory completion (in this case, a grade of 60% or better – Karen talks plenty about low expectations in her article and I don’t disagree with her on that point).

I ended up settling on a “live” course – Ethical Reasoning 22x – Justice, taught by Harvard’s own Michael Sandel.  The course contained the following:

Screen Shot 2013-06-27 at 5.19.55 PM

  • 25 lectures
  • 25 discussion prompts
  • 2 live chats with Prof. Sandel
  • 5 quizzes
  • 1 final

Each lecture was a YouTube video (embedded in the edX site framework) of one of Professor Sandel’s lectures at Harvard, including slides and discussions with and between students.  These videos averaged somewhere between 25-27 minutes, and with the included reading and discussion a single lecture might take you between 60 and 90 minutes.

Of course, nothing was stopping you from only doing the video, or only doing the discussion, or only doing the reading.  None of those were graded; only the 5-question quizzes at the end of each “unit” and the final exam counted towards your grade.

In her article, Karen Symms Gallagher wrote the following:

On day one, I got a form e-mail welcoming me. I was to watch a few videos each week, do a few readings, and do my homework – maybe: “There are no weekly ‘assignments,’ although we do recommend trying at least two of the suggested activities. These are not assessed, but will help you to prepare for the final assignment.”

Plenty of replies, but no discussion.

Plenty of replies, but no discussion.

So, in the basic sense, her experience did not differ significantly from mine. From the time I signed up I had about two months to finish the course, but I set a more vigorous pace for myself and did one full lecture per day, two on the weekends. But even with my ample free time and dogged commitment (I never missed a day) I wasn’t always engaged in the lecture and kept more or less a “B” average throughout the course. Sometimes I took notes; sometimes I just watched; sometimes I tried to multitask. Who was going to call me out?

V e r i t a s

At no point was I under any delusion that taking this course put me on par with Harvard students (“why yes, I am Harvard-educated, thanks for asking”), or that this qualified me to understand what going to Harvard was like.

At the same time, I did place an immense amount of value on this experience.

At the University of Missouri, where I did my undergrad, I sat in several 300+ student lectures (Psych 1000 comes to mind) over the course of my first two years. The level of engagement in those classes was, obviously, very low. Even in the small groups you could skate by without talking much. And in those science courses, my least favorite concentration (I’m looking at you Biology), you can bet I did just that.

I’ve linked the course’s lecture on Justice & Affirmative Action below so you can get a taste of what it’s like.

So while I was taking Professor Sandel’s Justice course, I reflected on how I honestly didn’t feel that much difference between the MOOC and a super-large lecture.  And I think that video really illustrates the point: in neither case was I interacting with the professor or students around me (except on a superficial level), and neither really required anything more of me than to take notes and pay attention.

Now of course that’s not supposed to be my positive argument for MOOCs. We want engagement in higher education, not a lack of it. But if we’re looking at this objectively then I can say that I have learned, on some level, the same information that these Harvard students learned.

And I did it for free, in my spare time.

I learned a lot about philosophy and justice through the writings of Aristotle, Kant, and many more.  These are things that I probably wouldn’t have had the time or desire, even as an avid reader, to tackle on my own. Let alone understand them in any competent manner. edX and Professor Sandel have provided an impressive service in the form of this MOOC.

A Brave New World will be packaged in an iPad

Still, I think that Karen Symms Gallagher sums it up pretty well:

We must do more than put a camera in a lecture hall and put professors in a loosely moderated discussion forum. We must offer real-time interaction between professors and students, and between classmates. There must be learning objectives, not just topics to be covered, so students know where they’re headed academically. We must require students to be accountable and expect them to show a mastery of a subject beyond a “showing up” standard.

I’m a big proponent of assessment and learning outcomes, and I think that the quizzes and lone exam do not provide an adequate look at what students are really getting out of this course. Of the three goals quoted at the beginning of the article, one is almost entirely unaddressed from the standpoint of the student: how do we know this is research based? And although I’ve finished the course I haven’t seen even a satisfaction-based survey yet, though something similar may come on the July 31st cut-off date, which is when we’ll receive our certificates.

And yet I can’t help but think that Karen, like many others, is looking at this too narrowly.

Because as much as we need to be proponents of engagement and intentional educational practices, we also need to be proponents of lifelong learning and continued education.

Not only that, but we also need to be proponents of global access to free, or otherwise affordable, high quality education. edX provides this.  Many MOOCs provide this.

We lose the potency of new ideas when we try to pigeonhole them, and I see a lot of that in the discussion surrounding MOOCs. No, they are not currently anywhere near being a replacement for traditional, in-person college courses. I’m fine with that, because I think something valuable is lost over the internet. That doesn’t mean, though, that I think MOOCs are, as Karen calls them, “disappointing” – far from it.

I think there is immense value in a nascent technology to convince our students that learning and self-betterment doesn’t end when you leave college. It continues.

That’s what makes us good people.

The headline for this section was taken from the comments of that IHE article; I would suggest taking a look at the rest of them. There’s a weird sense of fear in some of those. Fear that MOOCs are necessarily going to supplant traditional classrooms. And maybe some companies want to do just that.

However, constraining our view of MOOCs to that one facet is dangerous, because we can miss out on the incredible stores of information available (again) for free, across the globe. In a recent study, Brodeur found that only 23% of respondents were familiar with MOOCs specifically, while over 80% were familiar with online courses. There is clearly a lot of misinformation and confusion out there.  As student affairs and higher education professionals, it should be our responsibility to clear up that misinformation and to educate people on the inherent value of free education.

I sent a single tweet out on Sunday and received a ton of responses from engaged members of the MOOC community. Only one of those was from an English-speaking country. If that doesn’t speak to the potential power of MOOCs, I don’t know what does.

Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 10.29.39 PM

Thanks, FatNinja.

Maybe MOOCs aren’t for you – it’s too much time for essentially no tangible reward, it’s not your style of learning, etc. etc. Those can be completely valid arguments. However, regardless of stance, I would caution just one thing:

Whatever you do, don’t think for a second that you shouldn’t be paying attention to MOOCs.

Because there is a lot of room to grow, and a lot of people who are eager to do it.

So what are your thoughts on MOOCs? Do you think they have value? How should we utilize them? Tweet me @kevalliere or leave your thoughts in the comments below.


Featured image from Onlinecollege.org.

Follow-up: despite accusations to the contrary, I promise I am not a corporate shill.

One thought on “I Took a MOOC and I Liked It

  1. Pingback: This is not part 2 of a post about MOOCs | info-fetishist

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