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The ABCs of MOOCs: What It’s Like to Enroll


MOOCs simulate a full course at a top-tier university, which means a minimum of two to three hours per week of lectures, plus quizzes, homework and reading.MOOCs simulate a full course at a top-tier university, which means a minimum of two to three hours per week of lectures, plus quizzes, homework and reading.

Esther Duflo, one of the two superstar MIT economists teaching my Massive Open Online Course on global poverty, is a fast-talking French woman with whom I could barely keep up especially when the topic was math.

Her co-teacher Abhijit Banerjee spoke so painfully slowly it was all I could do to keep from checking Facebook as he paused between thoughts during his lectures.

Never fear. One of the least technologically sophisticated innovations of these free new courses offered by elite universities is also one of the most useful: You can slow down the lectures to .75 times actual speed, listen in actual time, or speed them up by a factor of 1.25 or 1.5.

To think how much more I would have understood, and less time I would have wasted, if my in-person college experience 20 years ago had offered a similar feature.

Alas, while new and thrilling to me, such bells and whistles are hardly the key innovation of these attention-getting MOOCs. The real question is, are their enthusiasts right that they can truly transform higher education? After months of writing regularly about MOOCs, I decided to become one of the millions who’ve signed up for these free online courses and far more exclusively one of the approximately 10 percent who finish.

About 39,600 signed up for “The Challenges of Global Poverty,” and I was among 4,600 who finished. I passed, if not exactly with flying colors, and was emailed a PDF of the “certificate of mastery” to prove it—my very own quasi-credential from MIT. The experience was enlightening, both on the subject matter and the potential for MOOCs generally. I learned more than I expected, and worked harder than I expected. I took a course for free from two leading experts in a field that’s of great personal interest—a remarkable opportunity. For millions around the world who lack access to quality teaching, the MOOC-backers are right: This is a revolution.

Yet I also got a better handle on precisely what MOOCs can’t do, and what would be missing from a college education comprised of them entirely.

The first thing I learned is why so few who start MOOCs finish them: They’re hard. When a class is free and doesn’t generally produce a credential, it takes real self-discipline (or a promise to your editor to write about the experience) to make yourself keep up. These MOOCs simulate a full course at a top-tier university, which means a minimum of two to three hours per week of lectures, plus quizzes, homework and reading. Most difficult of all, you have to keep up for 12 to 15 weeks, which is a lot harder for people like me, with a toddler at home and a day job, than it was when I was a full-time college student.

Technologically, the experience was fairly simple and elegant. An online “dashboard” gives you access to videos, quizzes and other resources. You quickly fall into a routine: a video lecture segment by one of the professors (filmed in MIT’s on-campus version of the course), typically lasting 5 to 15 minutes, followed by exercises to make sure you got the key points, plus a longer homework assignment after each week.

Is it better to be in the room with a lecturer? Probably, in the same way the multi-sensory personal experience of a play can be more powerful than a film. But in-person lectures also have disadvantages. The research is pretty clear that students tune out after a while. The 5-15 minute intervals make it easier to stay focused. Neurologically, answering a few questions about every 15 minutes and then at the end of a week is a pretty effective way to make things stick. And being able to hit pause or rewind, or speed things up, is a nice bonus.

But while MOOCs can speed up and slow down classroom time a bit, courses like this don’t fundamentally alter it. As in traditional classes, MOOCs generally operate on a cohort model the group starts together, and generally advances at the same speed, regardless of ability. Unlike some online courses, which offer self-paced options, MOOCs generally stick to this model. I found this frustrating, as did others in the class. One week I had a work trip and couldn’t complete the assignments, so I took a couple zeroes. But there was no option to work ahead one week, or catch up after. If the point is to have convenient access to the material, why the tightly constrained schedule?

This speaks to a big dilemma for the MOOCs, which will become more apparent as they try to enter the world of credit-bearing classes. Many of the potential economies-of-scale advantages of MOOCs would derive from students working at their own pace either faster or slower than the average. Yet it’s hard to run courses (and protect against cheating) without holding everyone to the same-week-to-week schedule.

Yet the bigger the class, the more students who are either bored or overwhelmed. That was apparent in the student comments; a professional development worker, who clearly understood many of the issues in the class from professional experience, was overwhelmed by the math. But economics graduate students found the math insultingly boring (I survived it, but was more sympathetic to the development worker).

This problem may eventually be solved with a wider variety of MOOCs tailored to different levels, but then of course you lose the advantages of scale. And all this matters because options to get help are limited. Unlike the MIT students we occasionally glimpsed in the videos, we couldn’t linger after class, or stop by office hours, to get their questions answered by Dufflo, Banerjee in person.

Each week, in a kind of lottery system, the professors picked a few questions and posted replies. There were weekly office hours run via chat by TAs, but they picked eight submitters to Skype with and then posted the transcript. A few weeks into class, “community TAs” were also selected from among active student participants to lead online discussions.

I admit I didn’t take full advantage of the opportunities available, but obviously they don’t compare to an on-campus experience. MOOCs are looking for ways to build community and may succeed. But the lack of individualized help is why MOOCs will be an inadequate even counterproductive substitute for current face-to-face higher education options. Even their biggest backers acknowledge that their most effective role is supplementing, not replacing, traditional teaching.

The question isn’t whether a MOOC with a great MIT professor is as good as what MIT students get on campus. It’s not, but that’s not the choice most people face. The question is how the MOOC experience compares to the alternatives they do have. On that, the answer is not bad at all, and likely to improve rapidly as the data on how students learn piles up from the MOOCs, and teachers begin making use of it. That, too, is a potential revolution.

Still, I’m also more aware of just how incomplete an education would be if based entirely on MOOCs. Here’s one big thing I never did in this course: I never made an argument. I was graded almost entirely on multiple-choice questions (sometimes we were asked for a number). I never went through that process of examining disparate evidence, weighing it, synthesizing and articulating an argument that to my mind should be part of any college course, even in economics.

That skill can be sharpened in a variety of ways essays, class discussions, even short, interpretive questions. But those things weren’t part of my MOOC experience.

It’s an answer traditional colleges might want to keep in mind, as they get more and more questions from parents wondering why they need to spend big money on a true college experience rather than plopping junior down for four years of free MOOCs.

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