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?
*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.