It is a little bit strange for me to realize that the last time I’d written anything for public consumption was in 2014. My time in South Korea now feels ever more like a distant memory or dream, even while so many parts of that year remain vivid and influential on my current experience (the occasional Facebook chats from former Korean students are a helpful and welcome reminder)! As I’ve been told tends to happen while in your 20s, a lot can change in a few months.
As of mid-December, I find myself residing in the Inner Richmond neighborhood of the self-proclaimed #bestcityever of San Francisco. For those that don’t know it, the Richmond district is also home to some of the best Asian fare in the city—endless options for dim sum, bahn mi, pho, and, yes, kimchi. Needless to say, I feel right at home here. Transitioning back to the lifestyle of the west coast and NorCal has been a bit of a challenge. Prior to moving, I was working on an election project on K St. in Washington, DC, and going from a campaign-style level of work-life balance to a position where everyone is out the door at 5 pm on the dot is unsettling. The bottom line is this: I love my work and my new city. My new position, as an undergraduate college admission officer, gives me the opportunity to travel around the country, meet and learn about talented students, champion education, and think creatively about how to differentiate and communicate about our institution within a sea of great colleges and universities.
San Francisco itself is a treat. I had only been to the city twice before moving here. The first time I visited was as a child with my family, and I remember being thrilled to see the standard touristy things like the cable cars going up and down the extremely steep streets of Nob Hill, but didn’t have a sense for a spirit of SF. My second visit was while in college during spring break, a particularly rainy excursion of finding cheap dumplings and exquisite coffee from a then-less well-known Blue Bottle. While I think Washington, DC will always remain my favorite American city and I hope to move back there someday, SF’s unique neighborhoods and inherent progressive spirit make it a wonderful place to live, even if the rent is too damn high. My apartment itself is just a 20-minute walk from Baker Beach and a 30-minute walk to work, so I’m enjoying not having to deal with Metrorail, even if MUNI sometimes has its own challenges.
This past week, my good friend Jordan visited from NYC and I got the chance to really explore the city anew, walking almost every major neighborhood and visiting such sights as the makers of Anchor Steam beer, the Anchor Brewing Co, and La Taqueria, the home of FiveThirtyEight’s Burrito Bracket Challenge “Best Burrito in America.” Having a friend visit is a great excuse to be a tourist in your own city.
Now, I also have a strange sense of permanence. For the first time in many years, I’m not constantly wondering and asking what’s next. There’s not an inevitable graduation or move-out date the way there was with high school, college, or even my Fulbright grant. While I still relish thinking about what’s next to come, it’s also encouraging to settle in a little bit and get to know the people and the place. And, being in admission, I still get to leave pretty often (hello San Diego and OC this weekend, NYC next month!). Instead of “what’s next” being about a new job or position or city, it’s about finding strong community—now that’s a long-term project.
If 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!