On the Matter of MOOCs

Jan 02 2013 Published by under Academia

Higher Education people are all talking about the MOOC. MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses including sites like Udacity and Coursera, are the latest hotness in online learning and open classrooms. The big universities like Cal Tech are getting on board, and asking their professors to contribute.

The concept is that of an online class enhanced, with minilectures (usually about 10 min to half an hour), sometimes in class assessments, and quizzes or papers on the material. The experience is enhanced by user forums where the class can ask questions and interact with the professor.

And lately I've been hearing a lot about these courses, their great promise, how they will change university education forever, and even how the days of the college course are numbered, how MOOCs will transform higher education.

I gained interest in the model, and so I've been taking one of the courses myself (Coursera's "Drugs and the Brain", taught by Lester from CalTech). I'm planning on taking more to get a better idea, but right now, well...I don't think the uni's days are numbered.

That's not to say it's not interesting. But I'm not sure who, or what, exactly, these courses are for, and what they are trying to accomplish.

1. The first thing I've noticed is vast differences in format and quality. Some are someone presenting a powerpoint, some are merely recorded real life lectures broken in to chunks. Some are more internet-targeted combinations (like this one on practical law skills, which has short videos that you compare to see who did the best response to a realistic client). However, one thing that I have noticed is that if you can't lecture well in real life...well you're not going to be much better online. The Drugs and the Brain course, for example, has so far been confusing, with some questions asked that were not explicitly (or even implicitly) mentioned in lecture, and with questions and explanations* poorly worded (don't worry, I'll be giving feedback in the forums over there). There's a huge focus on potentials and the Nernst equation...and I really don't think that's necessary in a course like this. Heck, I asked a bunch of other neuroscientists who study drugs (many of them electrophysiologists who love them some Nernst) and they all agree it was superfluous, and overly complicated for such a course. Finally...I hate to say this but it's boring. I'm bored and I got a PhD in this stuff. Because it's FASCINATING. But this class? Not so much.

2. Who is this course for? The course requirements state that you should have background in biology, physics, chemistry, and even mention engineering as a bonus. I've got a PhD doing this stuff, and I've never taken engineering. Is the course for college students looking for another class? For people with high school education? For people who already have PhDs? Many of the people taking the course are already in the field, lots of therapists and grad students, to judge from the forums. Are they getting anything new out of it?

3. How does the course measure learning? There is no punishment for people not completing the course. This means that enrollments are often in the tens of thousands, but completion rates don't even reach 1% (I will see the course through to the end, dangit). In the case of Drugs and the Brain, the only assignments are graded quizzes, which you get to take three times, and it'll take your highest score. Each time, the quiz is automatically graded, and you see exactly what you missed and why. So it's awfully easy to ace the quiz the second or third time around. But...are students learning anything? Or are they just remembering their answers to "pass" the quiz, and then forgetting the concepts entirely?

4. Other courses on, say, writing, involve peer editing from other people in the class of your papers. But (a) if enrollments are in the thousands, but actual participation in the hundreds, what are the odds you actually get feedback? and (b) who are you getting feedback from and is it useful? In the case of, say, a course on science writing (which I may take retrospectively), are you having first year grad students peer edit the work of tenured profs with dozens of papers? Will the profs get anything useful out of that? Out of the mouths of babes, sure, but most of the time, will it really be useful?

5. I read about how MOOCs open up education to anyone who wants it, top quality education. You can take a specialty course on vaccines or modern european mysticism. And I'm very glad to see that now you can take remedial algebra and introductory programming. But why these advanced courses? I see the values of introductory business, math, etc, and I really hope some people are taking them and finding them helpful, and that employers may take them into account for gaining useful skills. But who is taking these vaccine courses...and what do they get out of the MOOC that they would not get, say, out of a TED talk or the book that the author has written on the topic? In the case of the courses on greek and roman mythology (which I have to say looks cool to me), it's going to attract people who already have educations of the regular university type or otherwise, and who are mostly taking these courses for fun and high brow cocktail party conversation. While I'm all in favor of that (please do invite me to cocktail parties with witty conversation), I hardly see how it's changing the future of education. To me, it just seems like the latest incarnation of iTunes U, Video and DVD courses you get from the library, mail-order courses before that. Nobody saw those and flipped over the end of higher ed.

6. Right now you can't get credit for most of these courses unless you're say, already at U Penn, Stanford, or Caltech. Not really changing the whole "going to college" thing if you don't get credit.

So basically, while I see the potential of the MOOC, right now it doesn't seem all that much better to me than iTunes U (also free!) or getting a course on DVD from the library (also free!). Maybe there's a more social aspect, but so far I haven't seen it (though that could be because I haven't really needed to get a study group). The idea to me right now seems somewhat unfocused, like they aren't sure of audience, and are spreading the net as wide as possible to try and catch everyone. And as for the format, well I'm not sure how much I will learn or retain over, say, listening to an audiobook.

I'm interested to get feedback from people: has anyone else taken these? What do they think? Are there some that are truly revolutionary?

NOTE: I am not the only one who isn't so optimistic about MOOCs.

*My favorite example of this so far is in a lecture where Dr. Lester winkingly refers to Sildenafil and its mechanism of action, inhibiiting phosophodisesterase. He chuckled and told us all we could use that at our next cocktail party. But at no point did he mention that Sildenafil is actually Viagra, so I have to imagine the joke was lost on most of the audience.

16 responses so far

  • I started Scott Pages excellent Mooc model thimking, twice. Well dome lectures, interesting material. I'm on faculty with a 80% teaching load. Most of the course took place during my heaviest teaching. Nor much energy left for listening and solving. I eould love to have access separately so i can take it in summer. I'd like the tools, don't need the credit. At the same time i started and quickly abamdoned a course on game theory. Just not as well put together. Online learning has a place. I love the kind of youtube titorisls i can get on practical stats. And, i think thee is a place gor it. It may even bevome disruptive.

  • To a considerable extent, this seems to be a response to a higher education funding environment that is absolutely unnecessary. Long-distance learning is fine and worthwhile, but this seems to be a work-around for inadequate state funding for higher education.

  • Bashir says:

    Did you read this one on MOOCs http://the-american-interest.com/article.cfm?piece=1352

    The author thinks that most brick & mortar universities will be gone within 50 years. Not sure if I agree, but interesting.

    • Scicurious says:

      I hadn't read it (though I have now), but I think he's pretty wildly over-optimistic for a couple of reasons:

      1. There is no way to receive credit for these courses yet. How will people know you've taken them and what you can really do or know because of it?

      2. I always wonder if the people touting the end of higher ed due to MOOCs are Communications majors or something. How do you do a lab course on Coursera? What is the point of getting a degree in chemistry if you've literally never held a beaker? How does that make you employable? For things like English, again who is reading these essays and how are they being made better? Is the discussion on topic and useful for learning? Perhaps the English classes will be able to improve this over time, but the lab courses?

      3. People don't go to a little college with brick buildings and ivy on it because there's no other way to get an education. They go because they want the EXPERIENCE of going to college, of higher education with a group of their peers. I think that people will continue to pay for that experience, though I agree with him that the current financial system at work is probably hosed. It's true that the "eliteness" of college can be torn down by the internet, but it won't stop people from wanting it.

      • Bashir says:

        I agree that it's a bit over the top. Though there are A LOT of universities. I could see many of them having serious problems. Maybe not the R1's and well known SLACs, but the regional campuses and CCs and "commuter schools".

  • Wanda says:

    I was a biology major at Caltech. "Drugs and the Brain" is a course designed specifically for Caltech freshman NON-bio majors. They take it in their 3rd quarter, so they've already had, at the minimum, Newtonian mechanics, E/M, Calc I, Calc II, and first-year college chemistry, all at a high level. Students at Caltech are very smart technically, but many of the non-bio majors think that biology is a easy, soft subject that has no rigor or relevance to their interests. The emphasis on the Nernst equation fits this audience's familiarity with math and is an attempt to show that biology does use quantitative thought. By this time in the year, the students are also used to bad teaching, so the fact that Lester is a poor lecturer who makes many comments over their student's heads makes him just like the physics professors they've had all year.

    This course is addresses an extremely Caltech-specific need for a very specific audience at Caltech, and I'm not surprised that you find the focus of the course confusing. There is significant debate within Caltech about whether a "Drugs and the Brain"-type course does in fact teach students what they need to know about biology and gives them more respect for biologists. My non-bio major friends say that it didn't.

  • Dirk Hanson says:

    I always looked at such classes as extension courses without course credit. I took a Coursera course on Modern Poetry, and enjoyed it very much. Like real college, it all depends on the professor, no?

  • Zuska says:

    I always wonder if people touting the end of the uni really mean: the end of tenure, the end of poor folk of all colors attending elite institutions, re-whiting the very most elite institutions for the 1%er's kids. All others can take MOOCs with supplemental lab courses & maybe writing groups at CC's that employ nomadic wage slaves. How ironic, eh, that first the end of tenure and now the end of the uni begin to be discussed (and in tenure's case approach reality) when poor students, women students, students of color, have made serious assaults on the elite white male nature of U.S. higher education. Of course if the poor, the brown, the female are doing it, it must be devalued and if possible demolished, except for special enclaves.

    A. Cynic

  • Alex SL says:

    I guess most of your issues could be remedied and are not fundamental problems with the concept of MOOCs. What kills the idea for me is that one needs a lot of hands-on courses in my area: Plant identification with a real, physically existing plant in front of you; field trips with real, physically existing nature around you; practicals that allow you to do experiments in an actual lab, and learn how to use the actual instrumentation. And so on. Anybody who thinks that can be adequately done online lives in Lalaland.

  • Hi,

    I'm quite enthusiastic about what some of these courses can offer me, but I also share your reservations - the democratisation of learning is great, but these aren't anything special.

    Quick background: I'm a final year undergrad at Oxford, studying English, want to go into experimental linguistics, have so far taken courses in stats and genetics, will do more in data analysis and language processing - all this is just to bolster my graduate application.

    The two courses I've done so far have been on Coursera. The first, stats, I stopped after a few weeks because I found the lecturer wasn't all that good - like you said, they'll be no different than in real life. The second I stuck with all the way through, though at points I felt it was a little aimless. This is going to be an inevitable problem for lots of people because the numbers mean that what people want from a course will vary tremendously. For me, I appreciated the general introduction, but I was thinking, "And exactly how will this help me in evolutionary linguistics?" - a question to which there is an answer that I don't know.

    In general, I would agree that they are not much different than those available on YouTube EDU, or Khan Academy or whatever - in fact, they are little worse because they have time restraints and disappear when the course is not running, while YouTube videos are available indefinitely. The supposed upside of this is structure and testing, however, even if you are on one of the rare courses where you get a non-credited certificate, it still has printed on it, "we cannot guarantee the authenticity of this certificate" or something to that effect, and there is a necessary though detrimental impersonality to the testing in that they must be a barrage of multiple choice tests as there are simply too many students for there to be essays.

    My favourite experience so far, by the way, has been watching Sapolsky's Stanford series on YouTube - my approach to all of this has been as a supplementary way to learn more about something I'm interested in, not to seek any kind of legitimacy or credit, and I find that the academic face given to sites like Coursera is somewhat illusory. I should say as well that, at my university, I rarely go to the lectures it puts on - I'm there because of the environment and facilities which aren't easily replicated online; even just being able to get a few very expensive, specialist textbooks from the university library makes a huge difference, and when you consider that I'll have been through *hundreds* of books during my course, a free lecture series is obviously not enough to bring world-class education to the masses.

  • Jean-Denis Muys says:

    I am on my second MOOC class on Coursera. The first was about mathematical thinking. It was great. Grading was done by peers and it worked beautifully despite any fear I might have had beforehand. The presenter was good to very good. The level of the class was rather low. I would say introductory.

    I am not on a Massively Parallel Programming class. Its level is a lot higher. I have been a programmer with an MS in CS and I find that class *hard*. There are real labs, hosted by Amazon, that work for real. I guess it's because the topic is CS. In chemistry it would not be possible. The presenter is from bad to awful: he stutters a lot, uses wrong words now and then. The slides have mistakes. Yet I enjoy immensely, as I do every time I learn something.

    So the value for me is tremendous. I have very little available time with my full time job, and little available money. I would never have the possibility to go to a real brick and mortar university, let alone a major American one (I live in France).

    I really don't think MOOC will make universities disappear. On the contrary, I expect (and hope) they become complementary. Here in France, the CNED is the administration in charge of distance learning. It has been providing mail classes for dozens of years. For labs, they organise labs in a number of physical locations around the country, class by class. And they deliver actual diplomas, with the same value as one you would get elsewhere. But they are not free. So everything is possible and I really hope we/they can find ways to improve on their current offers. Not everything is possible, but a lot is possible that hasn't been done yet.

    Happy new year from France.

  • Jim in NJ says:

    I completed coursera's Algorithms Part I taught by Princeton's Robert Sedgewick this fall. I thought it was a great experience for me. I received my BS and MS in computer sciences in 83 and 85 respectively. I haven't had a formal Algorithms/Data Structure class since Reagan was president.

    I would say that about 60% of the course was review for me, but 40% was new (or forgotten) content. I wasn't a huge fan of the format of the quizzes or the final, but I loved the programming assignments. They were interesting and challenging, even for someone's who's been a professional coder since 85 like myself.

    I'm enrolled for 4 more coursera courses through the first half of 2013.

    MOOCs have several features that iTunesU, books and DVDs don't have. There is a schedule. They are active. The lectures and assignment are released "now" and you have 2 weeks to complete them. iTunesU, books and DVDs are passive. I'll get to them when I feel like getting to them - which may never happen.

    MOOCs are active with others sharing the same experience with you. I LOVED the interaction I had with fellow students on the discussion boards. I asked questions. I answered questions. I gained almost as much through that active interaction as I did through the lectures.

    I don't see MOOCs replacing traditional universities so much as they supplement them and carve out new niches.

    MOOCs allow many who have no access to advanced learning to learn something.

    MOOCs allow professions to refresh old skills and pick up a few new ones. The only investment is a little time.

    MOOCs allow pre-college students or those considering a second career to easily investigate a new field of study easily before committing resources to a more formal course of study.

    MOOCs are neutral in almost every sense: geographically, financially, social status, etc. All's that needed is a little bit of time and an internet connectivity, which while not ubiquitous, it is far reaching and expanding.

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  • Tardigrade says:

    I'm so glad I found this blog! I'm doing the 'Drugs and the Brain' course right now and must say I'm a bit bemused by it all...

    The 'lectures' are a bit like walking in on conversations mid-way, and I'm sure Dr Lester is a very fine researcher, but I think his skills may lie in the lab rather than the lecture theatre.
    I don't think I'm particularly stupid, but I really don't understand a lot of the stuff. Or wonder if I really want to... Then I go off & look at videos from some other academics and realize that it is actually really interesting and I did know some of it in the first place!

    Scicurious, did you comment on the Coursera forum? This year, any slight criticism of the course is met with swift derision. You are told (by people proclaiming no scientific background) that if you don't understand the chemistry terms then you just need to look up Wikipedia. If you want lots of 'up' ratings post something along the lines of "Amazing course, wonderful prof, we're so blessed"

    I feel like I've wandered into 'The Emperor's New Clothes'!

    Though maybe I should suggest that Coursera does a course on Forum psychology... now that would be interesting!

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