Education Everywhere? More on MOOCs

November 2013


Facebook       Tweet

In our last issue, Dennis Viehland shared some compelling thoughts on the effect massive open online course (MOOCs) could have on the delivery of tertiary education. Here, student GERARD DUNNE gives an insightful perspective on what it is like to be one of thousands learning from the same course.

How would you like to join a class with a teacher-student ratio of 1 to 80,000+? Impossible? Not with a massive open online course (MOOC), such as the first such Stanford class offered two years ago.

Courses are offered online for free (with some exceptions) from many top universities around the world, to anyone who has a suitable internet connection, interest, and time to participate.

While distance and online education have been around for decades, MOOCs took off in 2012 with the arrival of companies such as Coursera and Udacity out of Stanford, and EdX from Harvard and MIT.

As a student, I’ve taken four courses via Coursera. Because the courses are provided by the individual universities (the companies providing the platform and logistics), styles vary.

The first course, Critical Thinking (University of Edinburgh, 6 weeks), was straightforward, with short lectures and weekly assignments. The second, Know Thyself (University of Virginia, 10 weeks), I failed miserably, having quickly fallen behind while travelling and never caught up. Most MOOCs do have high drop-out rates with only a small percentage of those who start completing the courses (no excuse, though!).

Courses vary a lot in how much work is involved. Each course has a summary of the syllabus, the expected hours per week required, and the assessment process of quizzes, assignments, and exams. Some, such as the one I’m doing currently (Humankind, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 17 weeks), simply require the viewing of lectures and answering a question in the discussion forum, with an optional multi-choice exam at the end for course acknowledgement.

Others, such as Model Thinking (University of Michigan, 10 weeks), are quite technical, requiring a reasonable grasp of maths, weekly quizzes, plus mid-term and final exams. A number of students, via the discussion forums, admitted dropping out because of the technical detail.

For some courses, it’s possible to take Coursera’s Signature Track, which you pay for, completing the assignments and exams and receiving a credit recognised by institutions that have agreed to do so.

So how does it compare with traditional learning?

It’s hard to see how it would replace undergraduate learning at a university at this stage. While there is the opportunity to have interaction via discussion forums and to ask questions of lecturers and teaching assistants, the forums often head off topic, and with classes so large, it’s rare to receive answers from faculty. However, other students often provide interesting answers and viewpoints, of which there is no shortage!

One approach, known as ‘flipping’, is to provide students with video lectures to watch in their own time within a deadline, and then attend class to raise questions, work on assignments, and so on. This seems a great way to use the technology to enhance learning and get more out of time together. It makes it feasible to have lectures from world experts, and work locally with others to build on this learning.

The main advantage at this stage, however, is probably for students in countries that have internet access, but limited access to education, through lack of local facilities or funds. For them, the opportunity is literally out-of-their-world (and into another they could previously only dream of).

Will MOOCs change education in New Zealand? I suspect they will follow the typical hype curve of new technologies. At the moment, it is early days and the providers are still working on their models. No doubt after some successes and disappointments, we’ll figure out how best to integrate it into our education system, extending learning in the process, and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Post your comment


No one has commented on this page yet.

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments