I think I’ve just been persuaded that MOOCs suck

I’m convinced. Physioproffe is right: MOOCs are a great big boondoggle. It wasn’t PP’s words (true as they are) that persuaded me, though — it’s that Thomas Friedman has endorsed them, in a godawful column complete with helpful discussion with his driver from the airport.

Just consider this claim:

We demand that plumbers and kindergarten teachers be certified to do what they do, but there is no requirement that college professors know how to teach. No more. The world of MOOCs is creating a competition that will force every professor to improve his or her pedagogy or face an online competitor.

Holy crap. Right now I’m in ‘competition’ with skilled colleagues who were selected for their position on the basis of their teaching skill — I’m evaluated in comparison with my peers. I’ve seen these MOOC-style lectures, and please please please, I would love to be assessed against some person whose interactions with students are entirely through a glass screen, in a format that favors linear lecturing, and considers email a marvelous way to communicate outside of class.

This is what Friedman considers an increase in competition for college teachers? I see a slackening and a reduction of standards…and what the administrators and mouth-breathing ignoramuses like Friedman see is a way to outsource and reduce the costs of the expensive part of an education…the part that is also the only real education component of the process.


  1. hotshoe, now with more boltcutters says

    Yep, an online course cannot substitute for live learning. It’s boring; it’s the worst kind of “talking head” model of schooling.

    I’m currently enrolled in one that is well-designed with a forum for student discussion moderated by TAs for the class. They’re decent and hardworking but the typical answer to a student question is “go back and review the video for chapter x”.

    And this is how I’m supposed to get a college education? Well, as a supplement, okay, but as the main dish, no.

    It’s like taking home a frozen pizza and heating it up in the microwave for dinner. Sure, it’s cost effective (and darn profitable for the manufacturer and vendor) while it provided some level of nourishment …

  2. says

    One of the best instructors in my department is experimenting with MOOCs and is finding it valuable for his students. I’m sure he’s right, since he’s guiding his students’ learning. I’m also sure it would be a very different story if some admin-type were permitted to dispense with most of the professional faculty and could replace them with MOOCs.

  3. says

    Yes — I’ve got one colleague who has been trying to put the lecture part of the course online, have the students watch it at home, and then turning the lecture hour into a discussion/Q&A/problem solving period.

  4. says

    If not for MOOCs, I’d be unable to attend college. My crippling social anxiety doesn’t get in the way of class participation online, and the asynchronous model that my college uses allows for a flexible schedule. Friedman is an idiot, but that doesn’t mean MOOCs are bad.

  5. Ulysses says

    A large number of jobs, entry level supervisors primarily, just require a degree. Not a degree in a specific field, just a generic bachelor’s degree. MOOCs count for this requirement.

  6. brucegee1962 says

    A few weeks ago, I googled “MOOC Skeptic” and found
    this article

    I didn’t think it was skeptical enough, so I wrote this:

    Back in the 1920s, correspondence courses were the big
    things. They had many of the same features as MOOCs – they were supposed to
    allow people who lived in rural areas far from universities to get an
    education, they would democratize learning, even the poorest would be able to
    get ahead. And all of these things were true – yet somehow, higher education

    Television was going to do the same thing in the 50s – the huge
    flood of lectures and educational programming that would be broadcast would put
    education within the reach of everybody. Well, that didn’t work out so well.
    But then there were audio tapes of lectures – available in the library and able
    to be listened to while driving, no less – that were also going to give
    everyone a college education for free. Next came videotapes with the same
    promise. Yet still, universities remained.

    The central flaw in MOOC’s premise, it seems to me, is its
    reliance on video. There are far better formats available. My favorite technology
    has many features that video lacks. It’s fully portable and doesn’t need any
    expensive platform to operate. I can pause my downloading at any time at pick
    up again at the exact same spot later on. Best of all, it delivers content at
    exactly the same pace that I’m capable of receiving it. If I find an area
    confusing, I can pause, jump back to an earlier area, and go over it slowly,
    multiple times, until I figure out what I didn’t get. If I understand something
    already, it lets me skim along at just the right speed to pick up the main
    points, and slow down again if there’s something that seems unfamiliar. Video
    lacks all these features.

    Yes, of course I’m talking about a book. If a “Master Teacher”
    wants to put down his expertise into a widely accessible format, he or she
    should do what teachers have been doing for centuries. Publish. I’d like to see
    a MOOC defender show me one concept that can be taught in a MOOC that can’t be communicated
    just as well or better in plain, old-fashioned text – perhaps with a few
    pictures and graphs to spice things up a bit.

    Oh, and MOOCs can have multiple choice tests that go along
    with them. Great. The very things that are ruining K-12 education, now creeping
    into colleges through the back door. MOOCs seem to combine all the features of
    bad teaching – non-interactive lectures and rote memorization for tests – into one
    slick package. Well, I guess you get what you pay for.

  7. iknklast says

    Well, at my college they are convinced these things are the future, and I suspect they are wanting us to go this way. They keep showing them at our campus meetings, and telling us to be more like them. And I’m sitting there wondering what my students would come out with. So much of what we do in the interaction with the students is so much more than you can do elsewhere. I try to find that in my on-line classes, but it’s not there in the same way, no matter how much I do to try and interact. And completion rates in online courses are much lower, too, so that might tell us something. My students actually tell me they prefer face-to-face courses, and only take online when they can’t fit the regular courses into their schedules. It’s so easy to just put off the work, forget about it, and then get overwhelmed by the sheer immensity. But our school insists we need to increase our online courses. They’re so afraid someone else is going to take over part of our “turf” that they want to take over the other “turf” first. That’s what comes from running schools (even public schools) as if they were businesses, and thinking of the “butts in seats” mentality.

  8. Ysanne says

    the typical answer to a student question is “go back and review the video for chapter x”.

    TBH, a variation of this is often a good start for answering a student’s question in a way that actually benefits them. I’ve had students come to my office a lot of the time with an “I don’t understand how <very general thing X> works” kind of question, only to find out that hadn’t bothered to at least once try and skim the relevant section of the lecture notes, let alone read it in detail or try and read the textbook. (Particularly lovely attitude when said person had skipped the actual lecture, too.)
    In such a case, telling them work through the material by themselves first and then come back so we can then discuss it in depth is a good answer. Also, I was surprised how many go “right, I hadn’t though of that” without any discernible sign of sarcasm. Knowing how to start looking for an answer is an actual skill that not everyone picks up in school.

  9. says

    There is an important area where MOOCs aren’t even in the running, and that is the great deal of learning that requires the student to be actively participating. In the sciences, that includes everything done in the lab or the field. When you’re getting your hands dirty, there’s still nothing that substitutes for experience nearby.

    But it is also true in other areas. You don’t learn to write by listening to lectures, but by having your writing torn apart. You don’t learn to do math by listening to lectures, but by presenting your work to a critical classroom. There is a reason R L Moore didn’t allow his students textbooks:


  10. says

    I wish more of my classes were online; 100-level classes are boring as fuck except for the labs, and I generally only show up to exams anyway, unless there’s forced attendance via assorted attendance-credits.

    Plus, my anxiety and depression coupled with a nearly completely nocturnal circadian rhythm makes attending meatspace classes very difficult for me. for example, I’m about to fuck up my perfect GPA as a result of not showing up often enough. Not because I don’t understand the material, or don’t do my work; but because my attendance is shit. Fuck that.

    Also, online communication is a better way of communication for some people.

  11. says

    though, I should note that my desire for more online education is not the same as agreement with this MOOC thing. I know little about that particular version of online education, but “In the fall of 2011 Stanford University launched 3 courses, each of which had an enrollment of about 100,000” sounds catastrophic to me O.o

  12. theignored says

    Hell, I’m taking an online web development course right now. Though since it’s all about the web and computers in the first place, maybe online is as good as any for it. You can still do assignments and check out and feedback with the instructor.

    But yeah…for other courses that require hands-on work like any of the physical sciences, etc. You need class and real lab time.

    On an unrelated note, one of the founding members of the modern creationist movement, Duane T. Gish has died.

  13. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    I know I can Google, and I will. But with really non-standard acronyms, it’s really appreciated if bloggers spelled out what they mean as a first reference. I have no idea at all what a MOOC is.

  14. dorght says

    I’ve finished one class, dropped one, and in the midst of two others. Like college the experience has been very uneven. I do have a degree and I’m using these class to get back up to speed after 30 years and just general learning. The good part is being able to rewind or pause a video until you understand the point and can take thoughtful precise notes (rather then just taking dictation). Instant feedback on homework, quizzes, and test is also very valuable. Much more valuable the waiting weeks on scores from the last on-campus college class I took.
    The bad parts seem to be that standards of performance are lower (or get lowered). Only one of the classes I’ve been involved with have enough practice problems where you can work at it until the lesson really sinks in. The class I dropped really suffered from lack of a text and homework drill problems to the point that it became a huge time sink just finding other appropriate references. The practice problem thing confuses me because you would think a strength of computer based learning would be adaptive and plentiful practice problems.
    To me the point of education is learning how to learn. A class room and professor are not always required for learning (or re-learning).

  15. echidna says

    And then there are the lecturers who are so good that capturing them on video is a good thing.
    Richard Buckland from UNSW does a (free) introduction to computer programming course that I think is an exemplar of how to teach the art of abstraction.

    The existence of such exemplars might have an effect on real-life teaching; I guess time will tell.

  16. marjorie says

    I have had four completed stretches of education at standard universities, but I have really enjoyed the luxury of trying out MOOC courses, even though they don’t offer the same joys that Sussex University or London Business School did in the 1970s and 80s. They are free, available to anyone with a computer, and can give a bit of an idea about whether or not you like a subject well enough to want to sign up for a “proper” course and spend the rest of your life paying for it. They are also great for people who cannot get to a university – and there are lots of them, for various reasons. And they are good for people who just want to have a little bit of educational fun in an unfamiliar area. I think they are an excellent idea, and I hope that they keep going, and continue to be free. They are no competition for really good face to face teaching, with real labs, real late night drunken discussions in the union bar about everything, and real meeting other students and making friends. But I don’t think they are meant to be are they?

  17. says

    One of my lecturers last semester put everything online. His script, his slides, the audio-tape of the lecture, so I could catch up the one I missed easily. The questions about that lecture where the ones in the final exam I had real problems with…

    Apart from that I am really in favour of college professors and lecturers having to do some pedagogy and didactics. Because I fail to see why knowing those things are important when teaching high-school students but not when teaching college students.
    Frankly, quite some of the teachers I had in college could have done with some basics on how to create an exam so the results reflect your students’ knowledge and not their ability to guess what you actually want to hear…

  18. ladyatheist says

    wow he’s a world-famous philosophy professor and yet he drives a cab? Not much of a recommendation

  19. sugarfrosted says

    @16. I never really liked those “instant feedback” homework submission things. The one time I used one was in a physics class, it was terrible. Basically it would tell you if you did your calculations right, but the problem is this isn’t really helpful in the learning process at all. So if you understood how to do the calculations, but added wrong, you would have no clue where you went wrong, or how your went wrong. So the net result was you knew you did something wrong, but it was difficult to learn from your mistakes. I’m sure in some classes instant feedback is actually effective, but at least in physics it was useless.

  20. says

    But I don’t think they are meant to be are they?

    in the U.S.? of course it is. This will simply be the continuation of the process that resulted in most professors being adjuncts

  21. carlie says

    Online learning and MOOCs are not the same thing. Most schools (decent ones, that is) cap enrollment in online courses in the low 20s, because done right, it is pretty intensive work for the instructor and there has to be good rapport among the students. MOOCs are another thing entirely – they are open to anyone, function quite a bit on autopilot, and from what I’ve read have completion rates of something around 10% if they’re good ones. At the moment I think that most MOOCs don’t offer actual college credit, but more offer “certificates of completion”. Online learning is just taking a class, well, online. MOOCs are more like a lecture series that is open to the public, so you can come sit down and listen if you want, and if you fill out a few worksheets you get a note saying you showed up.

  22. marjorie says

    I have taken an on-line course (Diploma in Health Economics.) Contact with tutors (South Africa, UK) – once per assignment, after the fact. Contact with other students, none. Cost: $6,000. I have taken a MOOC in Biostatistics. Contact with tutors – through the discussion boards, as required. Contact with students, as required. Cost $0. (I know people who paid $20,000 for a short course at Harvard Medical School in Biostatistics and Epidemiology.) Both were interesting. Both were difficult. In both, I wished that I had someone to talk with about what I was learning. For the first, I was earning enough to pay for the course. The second is affordable. Neither produced any outcome beyond knowing a bit more about the subject. Now that Workers Education Associations no longer exist, MOOCs are a useful addition to educational opportunities for people for whom university courses are not available.

  23. grayhame says

    Ladyatheist, there is no need for an ad hominem. They never help and just make you look silly.

    The future of education is going to include some form of MOOCs, so instead of just making sweeping generalizations and ill-informed gut-reactions, all educators would be wise to learn as much as possible about them, who’s doing it right and who isn’t, and learn the best way to use this tool.

  24. Martha says

    It really depends on the purpose of the course. Interactions with people are crucial for learning how to think. I can’t see how MOOCs can take the place of a serious university degree in this regard. I’d expect that most people’s experience will be similar to Marjorie’s, above. An education involves learning skills, which requires guided practice. To say that one can learn those from watching someone else is rather like saying that one can learn to play a sport exclusively by watching movies.

    On the other hand, it seems to me that MOOCs can be very useful for people who have already learned these skills and are re-training or seeking new credentials in a job. Even then, as Marjorie suggests, some human interaction is likely to be required. Still, I suspect that on-line evaluations can help to identify areas in which such interaction is most helpful.

    The other area in which MOOCs can probably be useful are in the numerous university courses, at least in the United States, in which students are actually not taught to think at all. I can’t imagine teaching organic chemistry or biochemistry with out real-time interaction with the students. But I’ve certainly taught students– generally those from outside the College of Arts and Sciences– who are seniors and can’t really read with any degree of sophistication. Not all of them, of course– there are excellent students in all areas. But a surprisingly large number of them. As one of my junior colleagues recently said to me, “you mean these students get college degrees just like our majors do?!” If all a course does is to ask you to learn some information and spit it out on an exam, there’s no reason an MOOC can’t do that just as well.

    In short, for people who are already educated, MOOCs have an important place. And, sadly, there are large segments of our higher education system that do such a poor job that MOOCs can’t possibly be any worse. That’s not necessarily because teachers are bad (though some definitely are), but also because budget pressures lead to larger classloads and less time for interaction with students.

    What really bothers me about Friedman’s stance of this issue is that he fails to address the major reason that higher education has become so much more expensive: states have stopped supporting universities for fear that the produce educated liberals.

  25. Martha says

    Um, that should be “for fear that they produce educated liberals,” not “the.”

  26. says

    Thanks for the clarification, carlie. I was wondering why people had the impression that MOOCs didn’t use textbooks, and it’s apparently because MOOCs are not what I thought they were. I’m enrolled in online courses at a university, rather than a MOOC. The more you know…

  27. robpowell says

    USe of MOOC (heh, mook) as a replacement for standard classes is not going to be terribly likely. I think this is likely to be a result more of learning style conflict than access. MIT’s Open Courseware project is fairly good, as far as the MOOC scene goes, but my perception is that most people cannot learn in such an environment. The vast majority of us seem to need the engagement and interaction of the classroom to get in the mindset for learning. I’ve been perusing the Chemistry and Maths classes on OCW, and the math is good (Being able to pause and rewind a lecture is pretty nice) and some of the OCW sets also have recommended texts. I haven’t yet checked the forums for the classes to see how the environment there is, but it should be interesting if nothing else. The other major issue, as mentioned above, is the access to labs. Frankly, this is what is my bugbear with the chemistry courses, as the lab time is invaluable to the actual work you’re learning to do. My kingdom for lab access at MIT! I also believe that if the programs are to take off, they should probably incorporate a paid, proctored final exam option that actually offers challenge credit for those interested.
    In addition, all of the above relates to undergraduate courses. As I’ve seen firsthand, past the undergrad level, one starts REALLY digging into original and novel research, and at that point you need a lifeline to your peers and (hopefully) your adviser for assistance, and to occasionally tell you that your research is going backwards.
    As said, I think that MOOCs are valuable as an outreach effort, and some good refreshers for the rare autodidacts out there. I think they can work, provided that communication, forums, and competent, dedicated follow up are incorporated. They are not, in any way, a replacement for traditional learning (and any administrators who think they are need to be beaten with an Oxford Dictionary).

  28. dorght says

    brucegee1962 “I’d like to see a MOOC defender show me one concept that can be taught in a MOOC that can’t be communicated just as well or better in plain, old-fashioned text”

    Electric field lines with two or more charges.

    That’s one that immediately came to mind. But many, many concepts are communicated better with animation, especially interactive ones. Take this example from acceleration entry on wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Oscillating_pendulum.gif

    Problem I’ve seen with the MOOCs is that many extend the 101/intro/large lecture hall approach to the MOOC. An understandable temptation because in both teacher and student interaction is so close to zero that the difference is trivial, the classes are essentially self-taught from the book with some note taking from lecture, and only homework feedback is if your answer is the same as the back of the book. Some MOOC classes, however, are embracing the enhancements allowed by computers. Those are the classes that will succeed.

    That being said I still prefer a book to a pdf.

  29. katie says

    MOOCs have their place. I mean, what is the difference between a basic statistics class held in a 500-seat lecture hall, with homework and exams done online and entirely automated, and a MOOC covering the same material, except that the lecturer doesn’t have to look at the freshmen who didn’t change out of their pajamas? I’ve also used a few of them to refresh my knowledge in an area where it was shockingly lacking or just to noodle around with new stuff – as an anthropologist with a computer science hobby, they’re useful in that no one expects me to know anything going in. As a replacement for an upper level seminar, though? Meh. Nope. You need personal, critical, intellectual engagement that neither the MOOC format nor the 35,000 other people enrolled in the same course can provide. I doubt traditional higher ed will be transitioning yet.

  30. says

    I’m a little confused.

    I’m a PhD student, but I discovered the existence of MOOCs on Coursera through this actual blog, in an outraged post by you when your state was trying to outlaw it along with other (perhaps more deserving) online college websites. I have since fallen in love with it, enrolling in (far too many) courses that I feel will help broaden my horizons after my PhD by filling in some gaps in my college education and allowing me to pursue a broader scope of the research I am doing right now.

    What part of this is terrible, sucky and, what was it that PP called it, leading me down the road to class warfare and corporate drones? Or are we talking about MOOCs from a completely different perspective than the one I and others I know have?

  31. robpowell says

    @Crys 32: I believe the major issue here is that some universities believe that MOOCs should replace all cirricula, which would be a new level of stupid for University Admin. I don’t think anyone has an issue with the idea of MOOCs as a public service for those interested, but the idea of using them to replace standard matriculated classes is causing a (rightful, I believe) uproar among faculties.

  32. says

    Your claim that physical science cannot be done online is false. I’ve been teaching online physics (with labs) for 10 years, and I have data to show that they are learning as much as campus-based students.

    Do you have any evidence for your assertions? My impression is that many of my colleagues could be replaced with a MOOC. All they do is give PowerPoint lectures. Students take notes and then a few exams. The profs have plenty of content knowledge, but very little concern with pedagogy and no accountability for their failure to teach. Maybe you should, in fact, assess one of your classes against a MOOC and see what happens.

  33. gregpeterson says

    For a lot of us taking MOOCs, the competition is not between you, PZ, who I am always eager to hear lecture, and the MOOC. It’s between the MOOC and nothing at all. How was I ever going to be able to take genetics from Duke and astrobiology from the University of Edinburgh and quantum theory from the University of Maryland otherwise?

    Are these courses every bit as good as a live college experience would be? Absolutely not.

    Do they suck?

    Absolutely not.

    The ability to learn, however facilely, with “students” from all parts of the globe, exchanging ideas and observations and so forth in the online fora, is one of a small handful of things that gives me any hope whatever for humankind.

  34. robpowell says

    @gregpeterson 35: THIS. This is the best thing I’ve heard. Hell, I was considering taking a position with the USDA attached to U of MN Morris just to see if I could hide in the back of lecture halls to listen in. The real issue is that MOOCs give those of us that want to learn something, but can’t afford a second mortgage or mafia-rates loans for another degree, to learn what we can.

  35. Rich Woods says

    A few weeks ago I finished a MOOC ‘Introduction to Astronomy’ run on Coursera. As someone who has been out of formal education for more than 25 years I thought it was brilliant, although I can see how its assessment methodology could not really match up to normal university standards. I took it purely to support an interest (not even a hobby; I don’t own a telescope) and not with any intent to consider undertaking a change of career/education/etc. It filled in the gaps of my general reading, especially with regard to the basics of the maths behind the ideas which the non-textbooks I’ve read describe. The certificate of attainment is not ever going to appear on my CV, but I’m pleased to have gained it regardless.

    I agree that MOOCs cannot truly replace attendance at a university, with all which that entails. However I do think they have great potential as an adjunct to uni-level courses (disclaimer: I work for a university) and most especially as an educational tool which those of us seeking to broaden our horizons can use. That’s a good social benefit, and a worthwhile one. It’s also one which universities can use to draw students to them.

    Next I plan to take a course on Greek and Roman mythology, to see if a humanities MOOC can be as feasible as a science one.

  36. dmgregory says

    For what it’s worth, I’ve had great experiences with MOOCs – particularly Tim Roughgarden’s Algorithms classes on Coursera.

    They’re no replacement for college/university, but for someone like me, working full-time with little spare cash, they’re a wonderful way to pick up new skills in a structured way that I can fit into my schedule.

    Thanks to MOOCs, I’ve been able to learn from instructors whose classes I’d never have had the opportunity to attend in person.

    If you ever teach a MOOC, PZ, I would sign up in a heartbeat!

  37. Rich Woods says

    I was going to remark that somewhere in one of my bookcases I’ve got a copy of Richard Feynman’s ‘Six Easy Pieces’, lectures which he gave at CalTech a couple of years before I was born. People reportedly sneaked into the lecture theatre to hear him speak, such was his reputation and his skill.

    Just reading the book could never replace how he could teach in real life, but it gives someone like me a place to start. Equally, I think, if MOOCs encourage professors to thoughtfully and conscientiously put some of their lectures online, then many more people will have the opportunity to benefit from their knowledge and ability. The decision to spread knowledge will not be left in the hands of the publisher of that rare beast, a Nobel prize winner.

  38. says

    I think that an actual college education is far better in many ways than sitting around and taking lots of MOOCs. For one thing even if you learned the material how would you really be able to convince an employer that you had done so. I think that MOOCs should not be considered competitors to a liberal arts college like PZ Myers teaches at. There are better compared to more similar educational experiences such as audiobooks or just old fashioned books. I took a MOOCs on cryptography by a professor at Stanford and it was great. I would have had to buy several expensive textbooks and had a lot of personal discipline to get the same thing that I got by watching his lectures for free. A MOOC on atheism could be as good as reading “The God Delusion”.

  39. gregpeterson says

    Craig, totally fair comparison, and I agree with pretty much everything you say. I would only add that for the one genetics Coursera class I’m taking, there is an option (which I am doing) to use a tracking feature (involving keystroke ID and web cam photos to authenticate test-taking), and to take a web-proctored post-final exam test, to get a recommendation for college credit. Not a lot of credit, nor advanced credit, but a little something. And that seems fair to me because I work my ass off in that class. It’s my second time taking the same one, I have had decent math classes, I’m rusty from being out of school for so long, and as a communications major, this type of information is far from my usual wheelhouse. So it’s been a real struggle, and partly as a result, a real learning exercise. If I am able to get that endorsement in a few weeks, I’ll have earned it. Whether I can convince anyone else of that fact is another matter, but I was only ever really doing it for ME anyway. Putting a little more on the line just makes me work that much harder, which was the intent all along.

  40. cyberCMDR says

    The issue seems to be one of classification. MOOCs are a resource, and a potentially valuable one for people who want to learn about a subject and want more interactivity than a book provides.

    As such, while they can not replace a meat space course (mileage may vary depending on the teacher), they can certainly supplement it. Plus, they provide access to higher level subjects to anyone with an Internet connection.

    I’d like to see MOOC style classes created by master teachers for everything from grade school through undergrad college, not to replace teachers but to provide alternate resources for kids to tap into. Make the classroom more of an interactive discussion/exercise based on the material rather than a passive transmit and receive session. It might also help to democratize access to essential subjects, so that even kids in poor districts can have access to competent presentations on the material.

    A good enough set of on-line classes could enable students to test out of some lower level subjects, saving the more challenging/enjoyable/hands on classes to attend personally. I expect that colleges will eventually morph into hybrid systems, where it is expected that you will use on-line classes to knock out some credit hours at a fraction of the in-situ class costs.

  41. gregpeterson says

    Have NOT had decent math classes, I meant. And genetics? It’s math. Dr. Noor talked about the “e” like I was supposed to know what that was. (Which, BTW, for the people who say we should be learning from books, I still have largely had to do–just online ones, mostly, saving me a lot of textbook dollars.)

    And one thing that my even basic understanding of the math behind genetics does for me and would do or any honest learner is force everyone to admit that evolution is, to use Noor’s words, not controversial, but a mathematical inevitability. Such is the power of this MOOC, at least, that people all around the world have been taught, and shown, that evolution is undeniable. Even if we were to shoot down MOOCs as the privileged plaything of dabblers like me, that is powerful information by any measure.

  42. jbrock says

    Quoth gregpeterson @35:

    For a lot of us taking MOOCs, the competition is not between you, PZ, who I am always eager to hear lecture, and the MOOC. It’s between the MOOC and nothing at all.

    This. Oh, so much this.

    Meatspace universities are great when they’re available, but in general they’re not realistically available except to privileged adolescents. The rest of us will go for whatever we can get–e.g., a trade-school ‘education’, a public library card, and enlistment papers.

    MOOCs aren’t a significant threat to universities. They don’t provide a ‘well-rounded education’, let alone four years of 24-7 social networking. I don’t think they even claim to do so. The better ones do offer a clue–and for the price, that’s still a damn sight better deal than would otherwise be available to a lot of people.

    I don’t know why university adminstrators would look to MOOCs for ideas, unless they were just being cheap. And that would be self-defeating.

  43. robpowell says

    I think a big point here is that there’s a huge focus on “How will this help me get a job/showoff for an employer/get a degree so I can do X?”, to which the answer, at the moment, is largely, It won’t really and this really isn’t going to be a good use of the service. Credentials are the sole right of the University, and if you want their shiny gold stamp of approval, you’re probably going to have to pay them a considerable amount of tuition and time. I believe MOOCs and Open courses are more geared towards those learning because of genuine interest, not out of a desire for a job. On that note, I firmly believe that the trend of credentialism needs to stop post haste. The inflation of degrees is making a mockery of our workforce, seeing companies require a bachelors for a phone monkey position is ridiculous.

  44. gcstroop says

    MOOC’s certainly aren’t for everyone but I’ve had success (learning) with some of them. I have experimented with Coursera, EdX, and Udacity and have found EdX to be the only one suitable to my liking. The Coursera and Udacity courses I’ve experimented with seemed to have very little forethought and a very impersonal feel to them. The EdX courses, not without a few expected stumbling blocks, seem to have a more “personal” touch to them and also seem to be more well thought out.

    I never had the opportunity to attend college though it was a dream of mine to go to MIT. Life’s circumstances dictated otherwise and now I get to, in some small part, live a dream of mine to attain a modicum of higher education. I’ve found the MITx courses to be challenging, fun, and even entertaining. I spend hours studying, researching and trying to get a better grasp of the course material. I’ve been able to apply what I have learned in these courses to real world applications and it’s challenged me enough to think about practical applications of what I’m learning. That’s more than I ever received from any of the subpar school systems and community colleges I’ve attended.

    I realize the courses I take through EdX are not a replacement for traditional education. The guidance of fellow students and professionals, a professor with personal interaction, and the general college experience cannot simply be replaced by a MOOC course. What they can offer, and what they have done for me, is inspire me to continue learning, to better arm myself against the pseudoscientists of today’s world, and even enable me to enhance some of the hobbies I’m passionate about with techniques and outlooks I’ve never thought to use before.

    There is certainly a place for MOOC’s in society, in my opinion. They’re not replacements for college courses but they do have value and they are capable of inducing a vast amount of knowledge on a person.

  45. cyberCMDR says

    MOOCs and college do not have to be an all or nothing proposition. Right now, college costs are reaching the point where many people can not afford it. If a college provided MOOCs on those subjects that are amenable to that presentation form at, say 20% of the cost of a meat space class, that could cut a significant chunk out of the total cost of a degree. Classes with labs, or that require more detailed feedback (such as a writing class), would be done in person. Or you can even have an in-between class, with some parts MOOC and some parts in person.

    This is the same phenomenon as self checkout at the stores, self pump your own gas, or filling out the electronic paperwork once done by an office secretary. I think it will be inevitable, and that in-class teaching will be for the topics where there is obvious merit in the interaction, or for students incapable of mastering a subject without someone leading them every step of the way.

  46. cyberCMDR says

    I should amend that last statement. Substitute “on-line classes” for MOOCs, since MOOCs are by definition for much larger student groups.

  47. theignored says


    7 March 2013 at 11:52 am (UTC -6)

    Your claim that physical science cannot be done online is false. I’ve been teaching online physics (with labs) for 10 years, and I have data to show that they are learning as much as campus-based students.

    I apologize. It looks like I was at least partially wrong. Though I suspect courses like biology might be harder. I’ll let PZ or another biologist handle that.

    As for MOOCs versus the rising costs of college? Yeah, I can definitely see the point. That’s why I’m in the course I’m in.

  48. says

    I learn better with online courses than live courses, but I know that’s entirely due to my agoraphobia and my difficulty paying attention to people talking, and it only works for me because I’m largely self-directed to begin with. I certainly don’t recommend it in general.

  49. David Marjanović says

    Frankly, quite some of the teachers I had in college could have done with some basics on how to create an exam so the results reflect your students’ knowledge and not their ability to guess what you actually want to hear…

    There are teachers who are plainly incapable of asking an understandable question, and probably most of those are employed by universities.