For the last two years, MOOCs have dominated the national conversation on technology and the economics of higher education. But for all the talk of whether they’ll usher in a new age of democratized global learning or destroy higher learning as we know it (or possibly both at the same time), it’s been hard to get a handle on MOOCs are, and what they can be. A lot of MOOC journalism has been like this, wherein a general-interest magazine writer signed up for 11 courses, finished one of them (the easiest, apparently), and formed his opinions accordingly. On the theory that to understand an educational experience you should actually experience it, I’ve spent the last four months taking two MOOCs. Now I’m done, and this is what I learned.
The first was Introduction to Philosophy, from Coursera (also the one class MOOC dropout guy finished, coincidentally.) It’s a nice, friendly, seven-week overview of major philosophical concepts, with each week’s lecture led by a different professor from the University of Edinburgh’s philosophy department. It was fun, and I learned some things. It was not, however, the equivalent of a legitimate college course. And to be clear, it didn’t pretend to be. The expected to workload was listed as “1-2 hours/week” and even granting the many problems with equating time and learning, that’s a clear signal the class isn’t something people should be getting three college credits for.
And beyond the brevity, Introduction to Philosophy was missing important things. Grossly simplified, there are two main components of an educational process. One involves making choices about knowledge, ideas, and skills. What do we want students to learn? How do we present that information? There are many ways to go about this, and Introduction to Philosophy chose two time-honored methods: lectures, presented on video, and supplemental reading. But the course was mostly missing the second component: creating a process and environment in which students make meaning out of the information you’ve presented, integrating it into prior knowledge and larger concepts in a way that allows for applications to problem-solving and transfer to other domains. There are plenty of well-known ways to do this, too, and they took a stab at one of them, assigning an optional peer-graded essay at the end of the class. But for the most part, the education was passive.
My second MOOC experience was very different. Having sampled Coursera (and a Udacity statistics class last year), I wanted to try something from the third major MOOC player, edX. I asked edX president Anant Agarwal to recommend one, and he suggested MIT 7.00x, an introductory biology course that was starting in a few weeks. It would show the cool things the edX learning platform can do, he said, plus the professor is great. So I logged on and in roughly two minutes I was enrolled.