Coursera and MOOCs: Learning for the masses?

Coursera interorg 2013-page-0If you run in tech-savvy circles, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are heralded as the future of higher education. If you run in the liberal arts academia crowd, MOOCs are vilified as a great enemy to the personal nature of a liberal arts education. MOOCs themselves are an interesting premise—convert a university course, often lecture-based, into an online entity with self-grading assignments, and open it to anyone with a strong Internet connection for free. I find myself in between these two groups often.

As a graduate of a liberal arts college, I believe in the power of the small classroom. The experiences I had during college—grappling with classmates over an intellectual disagreement, asking professors questions, and leading group discussions made a valuable impact on the way that I approach the world and my work. I emphatically believe in the merits of having a relationship with your professors and the chance to have meaningful small-group discussions. So, can MOOCs replace this form of education?

Today, I received my first SoA. For the uninitiated, SoA stands for a Statement of Accomplishment, the digital document that one receives for successfully completing one of Coursera’s online courses. Coursera is one of a few private companies that collaborate with well-known educational institutions to put courses online. In simple terms, the universities provide the knowledge while Coursera provides the platform. For my first course, I chose to take International Organizations Management, offered by the University of Geneva. Given my background interning at an organization based on public-private partnerships, it seemed like a good match. The course was five weeks long: compared to many of the offerings on Coursera, it was short—an Introduction to Finance course from the University of Michigan clocks in at 15 weeks long.

The course material each week consisted of about 1 1/2 hours of video and a multiple-choice quiz. For Week 2, the instructors substituted the quiz with three discussion questions that one had to respond to in the course discussion forum. The lectures themselves were actually quite good and of high production value—this was not just a camera stuck in the back of the lecture hall, the University produced these videos specifically for the MOOC. The quizzes were fair, but the discussion forums were large and unwieldy—think of them as a more civilized version of the Huffington Post comments section. Discussion becomes difficult when thousands of people are involved.

International Organizations Management was not my first attempt at a MOOC. A few days earlier, I signed up for a course on Global Health, also from the University of Geneva. In comparison, that course had a heavy external reading load and the lectures totaled 3 to 4 hours a week. It more closely resembled college, sticking to a strict week-by-week set of deadlines for credit. If one held any kind of full-time job, it would be hard meet the requirements. I ended up watching some of the lectures and did the reading for the first week, but quickly fell behind.

Finishing my first MOOC, I can confirm what that I left the course knowing more than I did when I began. That is one key measure of success for the platform as an academic tool. However, MOOCs are far from being at the level where they can replace the classroom experience–they have little credibility. Although I feel good about having a document that says I completed the course, it comes with a hefty disclaimer at the bottom:

“PLEASE NOTE: THE ONLINE OFFERING OF THIS CLASS DOES NOT REFLECT THE ENTIRE CURRICULUM OFFERED TO STUDENTS ENROLLED AT THE UNIVERSITY OF GENEVA. THIS STATEMENT DOES NOT AFFIRM THAT THIS STUDENT WAS ENROLLED AS A STUDENT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF GENEVA IN ANY WAY. IT DOES NOT CONFER A UNIVERSITY OF GENEVA GRADE; IT DOES NOT CONFER UNIVERSITY OF GENEVA CREDIT; IT NOT CONFER A UNIVERSITY OF GENEVA DEGREE; AND IT DOES NOT VERIFY THE IDENTITY OF THE STUDENT.”

Kind of a buzz kill.

Coursera has started to address this by offering a verified certificate that checks your identity and typing patterns for around $50 per course. However, it is not accepted for any sort of credit, even by institutions that offered the course in the first place. Coursera is investigating other options, but as a for-profit company that opens up another debate for critics of education’s corporate shift—is a MOOC free when the benefits of verification cost money?

I have finished this course convinced that MOOCs are mostly beneficial. For those with degrees, they offer the chance to keep learning from the best. That I can access this material all the way in South Korea from experts in Geneva is a testament to the platform; it’s a great way to supplement my Fulbright experience. For those without access to college, MOOCs are not enough. Sure, they offer the knowledge and even a piece of paper, but they come without official recommendation of the university. MOOCs also seem to be having a sort of identity crisis; just who are they for? The courses follow the same week-by-week deadlines of a traditional college course, but the majority of students come from lifestyles precluding them from a full-time student workload and schedule. They are offered by some of the world’s best universities, but those same schools reject the credentials. If MOOCs are to be open to everyone, how rigorous should they be? How do we ensure academic integrity? And, do some subjects fit better with the MOOC model than others (STEM versus the social sciences/humanities)?

MOOCs are an interesting digital experiment that could have large benefits, but they are still in a beta stage. MOOCs still aren’t sure who they serve. As long as society and bureaucrats see MOOCs as a supplement to classroom-based education, rather than a full-on replacement, they will continue to offer learning opportunities to would-be students from around the world. There’s a lot of controversy to come as these profit/non-profit partnerships develop further. One hopes that we find a way for these innovative technical platforms and academia to peacefully coexist, rather than remain in tension as foes.

Have you ever taken a MOOC? What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments!

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About Jonathan Rice

Fulbright Fellow, Pitzer College alum, and communicator passionate about telling stories that make an impact.

Posted on 11/12/2013, in College, Commentary, Fulbright South Korea 2013-14, General and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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