MOOCs in perspective

I like the idea of MOOCs — massive open online courses — as ways to help spread the information at universities to a wider public. I don’t like the idea that these can replace real universities, though. It buys into the assumption that what universities deliver is big brains talking at a passive audience, when that’s only a small part of the experience. Scicurious is unimpressed, too.

Look, you want to learn? These online courses are a good supplement, and give you an opportunity to hear from experienced instructors. But if you really want to dig deep, there’s the disciplined grind as you try to master the minutia of a subject, there’s the hands-on lab experience, there’s give-and-take with peers and professors that you really need to bring it home. MOOCs just don’t do that.


  1. Alverant says

    Another problem is making sure the person who signed up for an MOOC is actually the person who is taking the MOOC and not someone else. If you need to take a class for your degree and you don’t want to take the class, there are plenty of people who’d take the class online in your name for a “small” fee.

    But as a teaching aid, I can get behind MOOC just as long as it only helps and isn’t required.

  2. Beatrice says

    Most of the courses I took were math related, so I don’t have such a variety of examples, but my impressions are very similar to Scicurious’. I liked some of the courses. One was particularly useful in refreshing my memory of something I have studied, but haven’t had a chance to use after finishing the uni. But altogether, the idea really does seem very unfocused, as the author said. Some professors invested a lot of effort in their lectures, assignments and tests, and kudos to them. Others… not so much.
    It should be made clearer for every course in advance who the target audience is. I signed up to a course on Machine Learning where knowledge of linear algebra turned out to be optional (I didn’t finish it, a waste of time).

    And no, these courses definitely can’t replace the regular kind. At least not for most subjects.

  3. Minestuck says

    I took a MOOC in Introductory Statistics as a curiosity and as a supplement. The problem hit me immediately when we had to teach ourselves how to code in the R language, which I had no background in and which was stated we didn’t need a background in for the course. I have a bit of experience in C++, Java, and Visual Basic coding but even with that experience I found it difficult without any tutorials or direction in learning the new language. The user forum wasn’t much help; everyone on the forum who knew what they were doing simply pasted their code for everyone else to use and when questions were asked, I didn’t find their answers particularly helpful.

    I ended up only completing about half of the course, but it did what I wanted it to do: I got an introduction to statistical concepts and calculations and I did get a bit of experience with the R language, even if I was frustrated to hell by it. I liked the professor’s lectures, but I probably won’t use a MOOC like this one again when all of the coursework requires knowledge of a language that is not taught in the course itself.

  4. carovee says

    I haven’t taken an MOOC’s but I like the idea for people who are working and need to bone up on one or more subject areas. However, I think the idea of using them as a replacement for regular university classes is terrible. A tiny fraction of the learning and growing that I did during my undergraduate days took place in classes. Do people pushing MOOC’s really think that the myriad groups and activities that take place on and around campuses are useless?

  5. rwgate says

    Last fall I signed up for two courses in Coursera. Although I received my degree in history in 1971 (Univ. of Wash.) I have continued to take courses through the Teaching Company and now, Coursera. I am not looking for academic credit (I don’t need it), but I love the opportunity to discover new subjects that I didn’t have the chance to take in college. Astronomy, oceanography, evolution, geology, Einsteins’ Relativity. Until my senior year in college, my academic game plan (or at least the University’s game plan) was to get me a four year degree and get out. Grades were more important than what you were learning.

    With the new free courses, with MOOC, with subjects taught by top educator’s, it’s fun to stretch the mind a little bit. Even if you don’t finish the course. like Minestuck @3, you learn something new.

  6. says

    Agree with the general comments here. I’ve thought that there are some classes that I could deliver as MOOCS effectively, and others (lab sciences and discussion-based seminars) which would not work.

    A big fear from faculty, though, is that there are administrators who might seek MOOCS as a means of recording one edition of a particular course, and then simply reuse that one rather than keep a faculty member employed in updating and revising and representing that. I do not know if this is a legitimate or realized fear, but I definitely understand where the fear is coming from.

  7. demonhype says

    I have a degree from a private university and a degree from a vocational college wherein I attended one year but had to take the rest online for financial reasons. And this is exactly right, that the in-person aspect of the university education is not replaceable and the online version is really just teaching yourself when you come right down to it. Though I did get really good at things like troubleshooting my own computer (it was a comp animation degree, so I couldn’t exactly find another computer to work on in my podunk little backwater) and teaching myself things like HTML on the fly in a day or two with absolutely no history in any kind of programming–things I never would have done if I’d been really teaching myself with no external element at all. So I did polish up an entirely different set of skills than I did when I was physically at the university or the vocational college, and I can’t say it was an entire loss in my case. But there is no way that experience was as good or as complete as the time I spent at an actual in-person school, I do wish I’d had the money to be able to do so the second time, and I’m really glad I was able to attend a couple of non-virtual schools for as long as I did, because I definitely got more out of that experience.

    That said, I feel similar when I think of the vocational school vs. the private university. I think I got more out of my gen eds at the private university than the vocational school could offer because, for an example, when I took bio or chemistry it wasn’t just sort of an abstract theory–I was taking it in the actual science building with actual labs and often with people who were actually going for a science degree (though I, obviously, would be stopping at 101), by tenured professors who were actually doing research work in their field, and I think I got a much stronger experience of what science was about from that. And that extends to all the other areas of study as well. I started getting good at math for the first time because I took a math class for education majors (it was also a gen ed), with a great female teacher who was all about the many ways one can teach algebra to people, and in learning algebra from an education point of view I was able to break the double mental block I had subconsciously carried all those years (female AND artist) to not only understand but like math! Rather than just present the stupid material like in high school and expect the students to sink or swim, she was great at helping you figure out how to think about the problems. My vocational just took the high-school approach, and I would have been buried without that private university class. You can’t replace that kind of experience, especially not with a minimalist “I’m only studying the barest minimum to to get a lucrative degree, so keep it simple and fast if it’s not immediately relevant to my immediate line of work” McEducation approach (which is the kind of line I hear from some people complaining about private universities ripping off students by teaching them “non-essential” crap). I didn’t know at the time I was doing it, but I’m very appreciative now that nearly all my gen-eds were at the private university. And in the long run, it’s made me better at my major by giving me all sorts of different perspectives I wouldn’t have had without it. If I’d gone minimalist all the way, I wouldn’t have learned half those things, I would have been half as educated and, not being aware of this, I’d think I was as educated as I need to be and probably shun a lot of new learning now.

    For example, how do I get these stupid paragraphs to split in this new system, so I can avoid this wall o’ text effect? I’ve tried a few things, but they’re not working.

  8. =8)-DX says

    It also depends what you’re learning. If it’s evo-devo or physics, then you’re absolutely right. If it’s Shakespeare and Picasso, then that’s a bit off base. I don’t think the MOOCs can be harmful, because any young dweeb knows that the bit of paper (diploma) you get after a real course has its own value for employers, while real knowledge and experience has another. I can’t think of anyone in these scenarios who would this a MOOC course is a substitute for either.

  9. says

    What I have never understood is how they are going to replace the field trips, lab practicals, plant and animal identification courses and microscopy that I needed to do to become a biologists.

  10. cyberCMDR says

    I took the Stanford AI class (that project eventually became Coursera), and enjoyed it. Cal Tech also has a good machine learning class on-line.

    What I would like to see would be MOOCs put together by master teachers on all subjects taught in the public schools, and accessible to all. These could be used as a supplemental reference (especially in the more underfunded schools) or they can use the material to flip the schools.

    In a flipped school the students hear the lectures at home, and school is the active part (labs, projects, homework, etc.) so that the the kids get away from the passive sit at their desks and listen model. With more interactivity at the schools, the teachers can engage the students more, help them through conceptual blocks, etc.

    Another benefit from MOOCs on all the public school material would be that they could enable kids to explore a subject more deeply than is provided in their school, or perhaps learn about evolution if they have a biology teacher that doesn’t want to cover it.

    What I bet will happen though is this. The religious right is going to create their own MOOCs for all the kids that are home schooled. Most likely, there will never be enough funding or interest from the general public to create legitimate MOOC resources, and the religiously oriented material will be the only option out there.

  11. alanbagain says

    I signed up for Duke University “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution” with Mohamed Noor. Unfortunately it wasn’t what I wanted and I dropped out part way.

    What impressed me was how many people took the session (tens of thousands, apparently) and how widespread geographically the students were. Many of them would almost certainly not be able to attend a meat space Uni and this was a God-send (pardon the language) to many of them.

    In the UK the Open University has been going for quite a while and is a marriage between the two extremes with formal recognition of its degrees. Indeed, some employers see a real benefit in an employee who has got a full honours degree while juggling a job and looking after a family. It demonstrates a determination to learn along with excellent time management and personal drive.

  12. watry says

    In most cases introductory classes are already taught like this, due to enormous class sizes (250 or so at the school I attend). That said, I’m currently taking an MOOC on Coursera about reasoning and arguments to help my schoolwork, and it’s proving very helpful. I dearly wish I had been taught this stuff straight out in k-12 instead of being expected to pick it up indirectly.

  13. gworroll says

    I’m taking some classes at Coursera.

    I’ve also done some college work, associates in general studies at a community college.

    The latter is better. Professors can adjust more easily. Class catching on to something really quick? Rush through that so you can spend more time on the stuff they have trouble with. Individual attention to give the faster students more to do, or help the slower ones catch up, is possible in a traditional setting. Even in the massive 250+ student classes that some schools have for some classes, much more individual attention is possible compared to a class size of 100,000+.

    That said… when you have no money but lots of time, Coursera and its ilk are amazing. Schedules help enforce discipline in a way that buying a self teaching book doesn’t, and while individual feedback is limited to automated grading assignments… the instructors and TAs can monitor forums to get a general feel for how the class is doing, and provide feedback based on general trends they see developing. It fills a nice middle ground between pure self teaching and traditional instruction.

    I don’t see it replacing traditional instruction. The class sizes are just too large. Getting a degree online might be ok with class sizes in the few dozen or so, but in the tens of thousands I just don’t see it being possible to enforce standards appropriately. Maybe eventually some education experts will figure out how to make that work, but for the forseeable future, MOOCs are a very useful middle ground but not a replacement for anything really.

    Some professional certifications might work with a MOOC format. There’d still be some advantages to a traditional classroom, but the knowledge base is much more in the “you know it or you don’t” realm, relatively little analysis or deep understanding that needs to be tested for.

  14. okstop says

    I tried to post a comment much to this effect in a discussion about MOOCs on Slashdot, but it was swiftly deleted. Posted again, deleted again. Seems that no one on that forum wants to hear from any actual university instructors. You know, anyone who might know something relevant on the subject.

  15. Emptyell says

    Curious outsider asks…

    What do ye think of MOOCs as a way to take some of the load off the profs so they have more time for the good stuff?

  16. carlie says

    Emptyell – it doesn’t take any load off, if the instructors are doing it in any way well. It takes much, much more time to develop online materials than it does to lecture, and to be decent at it you have to go over it all every semester and update everything, re-check all your links, etc. If all of the grading is objective in a multiple-choice way, it’s not really testing anything but memorization (and possibly skill at cheating); if the grading is all done by teaching assistants, then the class isn’t really being taught by the high-name instructor. In that case, it’s really just a fancy enhanced audiobook in terms of the amount of expertise of the instructor you’re getting out of it. I’ve taught in-class, hybrid, and fully online classes, and the amount of time the online class requires at least equals the amount of prep and lecture time in a face-to-face class.

  17. carlie says

    MOOCs are an interesting idea (and try following @MOOCHULK and @MOOKGosling on twitter), but it is insulting to students to say that it’s the same or easier teaching hundreds of students than it is teaching 20. That’s saying that there needs to be no interaction at all between the instructor and the student, and that it’s great to cut students down to having no contact with their instructors.

  18. Rich Woods says

    Disclaimer: I’m halfway through a Coursera course.

    I love the course. It’s giving me the opportunity to fill in many of the gaps in my general reading (of this particular subject) over the twenty-odd years since I left formal education. This is half of what motivated me to take the course and I have not been disappointed.

    But on the other hand, I work for a university, and one of my roles is to maintain the Coursera-equivalent teaching system which we use. Half of my reason for taking the Coursera course was to attempt to understand of what it was like on the other side of the fence, to be a student again but in the modern world. So anyway, after I’d introduced myself and met people and sobered up ;-), I got stuck into it.

    I think it’s great for teaching, but I have serious doubts about its use for assessment. I think there is a very long way to go before any university could — without any risk of demeaning their status — give an award to someone who has done an online module here and an online module there, and expected that to be equivalent to a structured and managed degree. There are indeed models of competency which exist (the Open University being the most obvious) but I think the increasing level of marketisation amongst UK universities (I can’t speak for any others) actually works against any would-be attempt to enrol students on purely online courses and to award them commensurately.

  19. says

    “MOOCs just don’t do that”?

    The claim that there is no give and take with peers is false. Many MOOCs already “do that”.

    The claim that hands on labs aren’t done with a MOOC may be true at this time, but there is nothing stopping them from doing so in the future. I teach online science and my students use lab kits. While my courses are not massive or open, a MOOC could replicate what I and many others do in this respect.

  20. jacquez says

    If it’s evo-devo or physics, then you’re absolutely right. If it’s Shakespeare and Picasso, then that’s a bit off base.

    =8)-DX , this rather suggests to me you’ve never taken, say, an art history class, or a lit class, at the university level. I’ve taken both — lots of them — and I’ve also taken MOOCs. I would be extremely hesitant to take any lit course online at all, but I think a MOOC is a particularly terrible format for that sort of class and I doubt I could be convinced to give it a try. History is another story — but certain kinds of history classes I don’t think would work well as MOOCs, either.

    One of the major features of a class of that kind is intense verbal discussion, moderated by the instructor, and good instructors work the students fairly hard to make sure that participation is near-100% and that the students are generating their own ideas at a rapid pace. MOOCs, for all the intensity that the discussion forums can produce, do not generate (cannot generate) this form of interactive learning.

  21. demonhype says

    jacquez @ 22: That’s true. I think I got more out of the classroom discussions than on the “discussions” on the forum boards at the online school. The discussion was spontaneous and interesting, whereas having to find something to say (in a certain number of words) and then go back and critique at least two classmates really made the discussion feel like some kind of chore to get done as fast as possible. In person you could, from day to day depending on the subject at hand, either listen quietly and take notes or sound off if you had something to say, but to be FORCED to say something and FORCED to respond to two of those responses had the result of about ten or twenty variations of the same old crap to slog through, and a long trail of identical comments most of the time. And if someone did actually have something interesting to say, it usually got lost in all that, because at some point you just don’t want to slog through all those variations of the same thing and you just choose two at random and say your piece like everyone else. In a real classroom, that wouldn’t happen. One person might say the obvious, and then it would be said, and that would free up the class discussion for other, more enlightening or innovative ideas to be presented and discussed. I hated the “classroom participation” online for turning what would be IRT a lively and enlightening discussion into an unenlightening and exhausting grind.

  22. says

    The flip side of that is that a lot of University courses are total crap. It is frequently the case that students are required to take a course from a prof. who drones on with no student interaction and no effort to even keep the attention of the people they are instructing. I’d bet that an intro MOOC Biology course could be much better than you would find at some lower quality Universities. MOOCs have the potential to force Universities to actually provide quality.
    My recommendation is that colleges back off on their insistence that students take classes unrelated to their actual field of study. Students should take courses outside there major, but if your college US history courses suck, then why shouldn’t Biology majors students just take a MOOC for that instead?

  23. carlie says

    My recommendation is that colleges back off on their insistence that students take classes unrelated to their actual field of study.

    Then what you want is a vocational tech school, not a college. The whole point of college is that you learn things outside of just what you need for your job description.

    if your college US history courses suck, then why shouldn’t Biology majors students just take a MOOC for that instead?

    I suppose you like charter schools, too. How about just hiring actual tenure-track faculty for gen ed classes rather than relying on adjuncts who are stretched to the limit working for three or four colleges at once?

  24. thomasbloom says

    I live far from any university or library. Coursera is just great. I could just read Wikipedia pages, but an organized course is far better. Am half way through Astronomy, and it is not easy. I suppose someone could be feeding me answers, but I’ve no idea where they would come from. The work and dedication of the staff is amazing. They are generous about letting you take multiple tries at the homework, but you still just have to do it.

    @#13 alanbagain: Dr Noor’s course has not started yet, so I’m not sure how you could have dropped out part way. I find the opportunity to take a course in evolution from an evolutionary biologist with great credentials named Mohammad to be irresistible.

  25. zb24601 says

    @thomasbloom: Dr. Noor’s Introduction to Genetics and Evolution course recently finished. There may be another session starting soon (I haven’t checked their schedule).

    I took that course and found it was more in depth than I expected for an “introductory” course, but I learned a lot. I had not had not had any academic exposure to the topic since I was at University some 25+ years ago. I wanted to get a more up to date understanding of the subject, and I did, but it also went much farther into genetics than I previously had. But then I was a Mathematics/Computer Science major. I did take some biology and anthropology courses, but not enough to get a minor in either.

    All in all, it was a great experience. I plan to take more courses from Coursera.

  26. thomasbloom says

    @ zb24601: Thanks, and my apologies to alanbagain. Evolution and Genetics with Mohamad Noor starts (again) tomorrow. (Coursera, free, from Duke U).

    I thought Noor’s course would be easy, thanks for the warning. Maybe 4 courses will be enough for my 65 year old brain.

  27. John Horstman says

    Yes, indeed. Even ‘traditional’ online courses are seriously lacking in certain areas. They can do some things very well, and some things not at all. It’s about using the right tool(s) for the job, not trying to funnel every single course on every single subject into the same mold. (Also, universities can’t be both truly excellent and run as for-profit businesses, for many related reasons.)

  28. thisisaturingtest says

    As someone who lacks a formal education beyond high school (and, as Robert Plant sang, that was “nobody’s fault but mine”), let me just say this:
    Education is more than just the material of knowledge, just a body of books and what’s in them; it’s a process which includes the discipline of learning how to learn, and then usefully apply what’s learned. Metaphorically, it’s not just forging a sword, it’s putting an edge on it that will cut. On-line courses can add to the material, but they’re no substitute for the process.

  29. alanbagain says

    #28 thomasbloom

    Apology freely accepted!
    It was not so much that the course was too hard (although it definitely was challenging if you have little background in the field) but that it wasn’t what I wanted. Evolutionary Biology with a little bit of genetics would have been great. Personally, I did not want to study the application of gentics science to everyday life. For many that would, of course, have been exactly what they wanted!

    I plan to take other courses but I will look very hard to make sure it really is what I want/need beforehand.

  30. jacquez says

    demonhype @23 — exactly. In addition, I found that one of the problems with online discussion in MOOCs is that students would get off-track, and not be brought back around. Sometimes in classroom discussion an instructor will let people run down a line of thought that’s not going to work out, or is unsupported by the evidence, just to see what happens — but they do this knowing how to bring the discussion back around and demonstrate the flaws of the line of argument, and the whole thing becomes part of the learning process. In MOOCs, students can go down the same sorts of roads, but the instructor isn’t there to bring the discussion back around; other students may or may not notice flawed arguments or faulty assertions, and the whole thing can go very far off the rails without anything being said about it. This can result in students developing firmly embedded misunderstandings of what the heck is going on with the material.