Review of a MOOC: Massive Open Online Courses with Coursera

As computers become more affordable, powerful and widespread, they are transforming approaches to education, along with every aspect of modern life. In many countries, especially in Asia and Africa, there are more potential students than there are places at universities, so many bright, talented students have no chance of securing or paying for a place at a traditional bricks-and-mortar high school or university. In other countries, such as in North America, potential students find the costs of a university education out of reach, or only possible by incurring such a heavy load of debt that they are deciding the benefit is not worth the cost. Instead of traditional school programs, students of all ages, walks of life and regions are signing up for free, massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

MOOCs are courses that are delivered online through video lectures, often accompanied by subtitles or powerpoint slides that bullet key points of each section. Many of these courses have been developed by professors at prestigious international universities such as Stanford, Berkley, and Harvard, and run in modules for six to twelve weeks. Students can do practice exercises and take quizzes as they work through the material, and participate in on-line forums to ask questions, discuss ideas, or interact socially with other students around the world who are taking the same course. Until now, most of these courses are in the math, science, business and technology disciplines, which allow easier structure for computer-generated feedback in the form of multiple-choice or true/false follow-up learning activities, which help students process the course material and permit evaluation. Humanities disciplines, like literature, modern languages, and history, which require intensive writing from students, are less available as MOOCs, since it is difficult to evaluate essays and critical thinking in computer-based tests. At the end of many of the courses, students who have completed the quizzes and assignments can apply for a certificate of completion. Although these do not grant academic credit from the university that developed the course, many students have been able to negotiate these completion certificates for recognition of prior learning or academic equivalency at their educational institute of choice.

MOOCs have been evolving since around 2008, after George Siemens and colleagues at the University of Manitoba had participated in a conference that was streamed on-line using digital tools like Moodle, Elluminate and blogging to allow synchronous, real-time engagement over the internet. After this conference, Siemens and his partners opened their course online, making it completely accessible for students to access lectures and readings, and share their own ideas and thinking through blog posts, Twitter and other social media. This approach effectively moved the learning into the hands of the students, to explore material in their own way, make connections with the ideas and research, and develop social relationships with their peers in the field that could continue after the course was over.

Today, organizations like the Khan Academy and Coursera offer thousands of courses on a wide range of topics using this kind of structure. Do you want to learn about Securing Digital Democracy? A History of the World Since 1300? Introduction to Mathematical Thinking? Mathematical Biostatistics Boot Camp? Learn to Program: the Fundamentals? These are some of the programs listed in the current Coursera catalogue, and more are in the works.

In this 2012 Ted Talk, Daphne Koller, one of the founders of Coursera, gives a fascinating introduction to the vision, goals, history, and effects of this rapidly expanding vehicle for education, which is actualizing the ideal of a world classroom. A variety of these courses have been translated into 27 languages in total.

As I browsed through the Coursera Catalogue, about twenty courses interested me. Some of them had started already, so I crossed them off. I picked “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue” for a few reasons:

  • it started immediately, the next day
  • it required no prerequisites,
  • it was free, as are all the Coursera courses
  • it would help me understand argument and critical thinking better
  • it would strengthen my skills in teaching argumentation, persuasive writing and debate to my adult students.

The first week’s work included six required and three optional video lectures, which were very clear, well structured and easy to follow. They included short, funny video clips from Monty Python that illustrated various points the professor was making. During and following each 8-18 minute lecture, there were true/false exercises that required me to reflect on the concepts that had been introduced, and sometimes go back to the video and review the material. If I didn’t get the exercises right, explanations for each wrong answer popped up, and I could go back to review the video and re-do the exercise.

I am having a very positive learning experience with this course, and highly recommend it.

Here are some potential challenges that face students who enroll in a MOOC:

  • requires discipline to stay with the course when there is no set time, place and group accountability that a bricks-and-mortar course imposes
  • requires access to a computer and internet connection
  • requires some computer literacy, or willingness to learn
  • to date, MOOCs are not really set up to accommodate writing-intensive courses, but this may be changing through the use of peer-editing groups that function like on-line writing programs, similar to a MOOC in many ways, that teach skilled writers the elements of Search Engine Optimization to help their blogs and articles be noticed by Google crawlers.

Here’s what I like:

  • course material is clear, well-structured, and easy to follow. There is an optional textbook for those who want to probe deeper into the course ideas.
  • course is available online at all times, available at the student’s convenience
  • exercises relate to the lecture material, have explanations and can be retaken until student understands the material. They are valuable supplemental learning activities
  • there are forums to message, converse, exchange comments and interact with other students around the world
  • there are meetup groups on Google Hangout or arranged live meetings in cities with large enrollment, which have been arranged by students and anyone can join.

In the course I enrolled in, Think Again, there are over 170,000 students enrolled. People around the world are engaged in varying degrees with the learning material that is available in this way. One way to picture these courses is an online version of the public library. The potential for this form of learning is both exciting and exponential.

  • In addition to providing translated versions of the courses into world languages, one huge area for potential development is accompanying enhanced ESL or EFL language support for students whose language is not English, which might include vocabulary practice, summaries of content in short sentences and simplified language structures, provision of close captioning for lectures, and additional content-specific practice exercises.
  • These massive open online courses are useful also in community learning centres in rural areas in developing countries, where community learning centres equipped with wireless computer labs might be set up, enabling on-site learning in groups or individually. For example, agencies like the Malaika Foundation in Ghana, West Africa are working to gather outdated but still functional computers from North American businesses to install them in rural schools, which can become satellite learning centres for the whole community, obviating the need for building libraries and supplying books in regions where roads are rugged and resources are scarce.
  • Closer to home, in North America, content is being developed and delivered for high school courses, such as the Virtual High School in Bayfield, Ontario. With over 3,500 students in grades 9 to 12, the completely virtual high school has students registered from all over the world, working to complete Ontario graduation certificate. Many of these students are homeschooled, or may be pursuing careers in athletics, acting, and music and are unable to manage a regular school schedule because of their travel commitments.

Many people argue that online learning does not replace the human interaction and opportunities for social interaction, live debate and public presentation of ideas that face to face learning in a traditional classroom provides. Opponents to online classes point out that, especially for teens in high school and young adults in first years at university, these skills are crucial for success in the business world where ideas are nearly useless unless they are communicated in persuasive ways that allow them to grow and fund themselves. Recognizing the validity of this point of view, some instructors are using MOOCs as part of the required learning materials of their regular campus classes, allowing them to flip the class so students come to the scheduled class meeting having worked through the assigned sections of the MOOC. The instructor can then build on that common learning background to use class time for enhanced learning activities such as small group tasks or problem solving.

In the barely five years since the first MOOCs appeared, educators and students are just beginning to apprehend the capacity and power of this tool to make universal, free education available to anyone, anytime.