It seems like a while ago now, but back in January I decided to try a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). For a variety of reasons being practicality, interest and some related work experience I chose to study An Introduction to the US Food System. I am now half-way through and so an update on how it is going and some thoughts on the MOOC experience are definitely in order.
First of all, the Coursera website, registration process and the email communication by the course providers (Johns Hopkins University) has been excellent. Starting my online education experience has been a breeze and I can easily see why MOOCs have been proving so popular. The course I am doing has 18,000 registered participants from all around the world. We have a Discussion Forum to facilitate interaction between us. Most of us have at least logged on and introduced ourselves via the Forum but I have also seen a couple of lively debates around the various lecture topics. In week 1 we did an ecological footprint calculator and shared our results via an online poll. I learned that if everyone lived the way I did we would need 2.6 planet Earths to keep up with my consumption. Even scarier is the fact that my footprint was amongst the lightest with 37% of course participants needing 4 – 4.9 Earths and a further 25% needing 3 -3.9 Earths. Food for thought – try the calculator and see what impact your lifestyle is having.
If you try it out let me know how many Earths you need, I am a recycler, try and buy local, minimise waste etc so I think it was my plane travel that increased my impact, anyway let me know how you go.
But back to the MOOC. The format is pretty simple: weekly lectures and reading lists, discussion topics and a quiz. There are 8 quizzes in total as we get tested each week on what we learned as well as 2 other quizzes that relate to course structure. The 6 content quizzes are worth 15% each and the 2 other quizzes are 5%. I will need to achieve 75% or more to earn a statement of accomplishment at the end of the course. The beauty of doing a MOOC is that you can study anywhere, anytime so long as you have an internet connection and so all quizzes are open for completion until a week after the end of the course. I think this works pretty well and recognises the flexibility that is needed to make this type of education option successful. The quizzes basically work on an honesty system, meaning that you verify that it is you doing the quiz and the answers selected were a result of your own work. You get to take the quiz up to 3 times with your most successful score been the one that counts. For the course I am doing that is fine, but there are obvious limitations to this method of examination.
Truthfully, I am dipping in and out of lectures when I have time and feel like it. I am actually a lecture behind the course schedule at the moment and so have some catching up to do. The lecture videos deliver a different experience to sitting in a lecture hall or tutorial room with other students but I cannot see that you would learn any less than in a traditional university environment – certainly you can do as much work as you want in terms of pre-reading, lecture note taking etc. What you miss is the wider tertiary and collegiate experience and not even dedicated use of the Discussion Forum can replicate that.
My university memories are of leaning against sandstone walls talking with friends before and after class, often coming in late and unprepared to lectures and sitting right up the back so I would not be seen or called on. I spent warm hours between lectures lying on the university lawn in the sun and rainy days in the library. Mornings started with a coffee at one of the many university cafes and at the end of the day a group of us would meet up for a beer, cheap red wine and pizza.
I cannot see MOOCs replacing university degrees or the desire to go to university (especially as an undergraduate) but they are redefining education delivery and options quicker than you and I may think. MOOCs liberalise and flatten access to high level education and educators; in a branded world they open up access to premium universities and it is all so easy and cheap. The implications for post-graduate and executive education as well as employee training are obvious. MOOCs have the online education format and technology down pat. Already there are a huge number of courses to choose from offered by many of the world’s most prestigious universities.
I just wonder how the human experience can be delivered. It is one thing to sit at your computer watching an online video, taking notes and doing quizzes, but this is not university. Can MOOCs and MOOC providers somehow generate active online student communities, facilitate meet ups and hang outs; can you make friends doing a MOOC? If so, MOOCs will probably be more successful and ubiquitous than I can imagine. Perhaps the lifestyle trend for more time online and less time outside will continue to the point that universities are anachronisms. I hope not. Universities are more than just education, they are crucibles for fellowship, friendship, research, aspiration and life experience. This is what makes going to university so valuable and while MOOCS are education enablers they will not take over universities just yet.