Sunday, August 11, 2013

A MOOC Overview

There seem to be new articles written about MOOCs on a daily basis and many of them come with the disclaimer "I haven't actually finished a course." One of the main points they highlight is the low percentage of learners who actually finish courses that they sign up for. Depending on their bias with respect to MOOCs they either interpret this as a huge problem or dismiss it and point to the number of students who do finish. I have completed seven MOOCs and will be finishing another two soon. In this article I will give you my perspective of MOOCs as an active user, a high-school teacher and finally as someone who has nearly completed an online graduate degree from one of the top for-profit online universities.
A brief background is necessary to understand my entire experience with MOOCs and online learning. I have a bachelor's degree in mathematics and will be finishing an online MBA by the end of this year. I am currently a high school mathematics teacher, teaching AP Calculus AB and Statistics (not AP level). My earliest experience with online college courses was through MIT's OpenCourseWare. I was in college from 2004-2008 and would visit the site from time to time and watch some of their lectures, especially in math and physics. In 2005 I took a linear algebra course that was primarily online. After I graduated from college I had fallen in love with learning so I would visit MIT's OCW sites and from there I found and viewed lectures from Yale and Harvard. I was aware of the coming of edX from the MIT site then one day in 2012 I read an article in the Wall Street Journal that talked about Coursera. For me it was like Christmas came early.
I have completed seven MOOCs from Coursera and Udacity and am in the process of finishing another 2 from Coursera. I've never finished a course from edX even though I think they have the best platform and strongest courses, an interesting phenomenon that I will discuss in a moment. I've completed far fewer courses than I've signed up for, indicative of the general trend mentioned in other articles. I can't speak for everyone that has signed up for a MOOC but I want to spend some time discussing the reasons that I drop or don't finish courses.
The first reason is that I sign up for far more courses than I ever intend to complete. At this very moment I am enrolled in 7 Coursera courses that have started. Two of them, Competitive Strategy and The Holocaust, I intend to finish. The other five have just started and while they caught my interest initially I now have the opportunity to view them in more detail and decide if I want to take them or wait for another offering. In addition I am signed up for many courses that are being offered in the future. Some I can already tell I will complete, such as the Financial Accounting and Corporate Finance courses from Wharton. While I am aware that the experience won't be the same as UPenn students the opportunity to take what is arguably the most famous finance course is too great to pass up.
Another reason that I don't finish some courses is that I am merely 'auditing' them for the video lectures. I have done this for quite a few edX courses and the Coursera course on Astronomy from Duke. As a teacher I am aware of how important doing assignments are for learning but sometimes I just want to view the lectures for fun.
Generally, however, I prefer to drop a course rather than just watch the video lectures. I have a rule that the absolute maximum number of courses that I will take at one time is five, although for the most part I like to stay around three. Due to this I have actually dropped courses that were half completed in order to make room for others that interest me more. This happened, for example, with the UPenn course on Gamification. It was an enjoyable and well-made course but I dropped in a few weeks in to take another course with the plan of taking it during another offering.
Finally I have dropped a couple of classes because they did not meet my expectations. Some have been because of poor quality although that has been very rare. There was a course on personal financial planning that was extremely basic and basically consisted of someone reading verbatim from lecture slides.
Most of the courses I have been completed have been on Coursera, which of course also boasts the largest number of courses. I have completed one course on Udacity, their CS101 course and no edX courses. A brief discussion of the three different platforms will also highlight a big reason why this is so.
I said before that I believe edX has the best platform. I think it also has the most challenging courses. The problem for me has been that since I have a math and physics background a lot of those courses have been a bit of a review. In addition some of the courses are ported from older MIT OCW lectures which I have already viewed. edX is starting to offer more courses and I look forward to completing a few of them this fall.
I believe that the Udacity layout is ideal for the computer science courses that they offer. In addition to the one course I have completed I have also done some work in a few others. The biggest problem I have with Udacity is also one of its selling points; the courses are not on a set schedule. I like that I can start a course whenever I want but since there is no pressure to get things finished they tend to take a backseat to other courses that are on a schedule.
The reason I use Coursera the most is the bigger course selection. My goals with respect to MOOCs are not to earn another degree, get credits or even professional development (although there are education courses I would gladly accept professional development credit for!) but merely to learn. I've taken courses as varied as internet history and microeconomics. I will probably take a class on poetry eventually. That Coursera offers all of these varieties is nice but in addition I have all of them available on one webpage. I believe if there were a portal that was integrated with all of the different MOOC sites I would be more likely to complete more courses outside of just Coursera.
Another criticism I've read about MOOCs is that many of the users, myself included, already have college degrees. The mission of MOOCs seems to be opening education up to the masses which I guess is not supposed to include college graduates? For me, a college education was a prerequisite to developing a true love for learning. When I graduated high school in 2001 I was tired and fed up with school and learning. I was forced to take classes on subjects that didn't interest me (I hated math in high school though so go figure) and that resulted in me taking a few years off before starting college. In college I had the freedom to pursue knowledge of the subjects I found interesting and from there I developed what I imagine will be my lifelong purpose of learning. Perhaps had MOOCs existed when I was in high school I would have developed this sooner. I have plans to utilize MOOCs in my AP Calculus course this coming year, perhaps as extra credit. I believe that seeing the material from another viewpoint can be helpful but my main goal is to introduce them to MOOCs in general.
Now I don't think that all of the criticisms of MOOCs are wrong. At this point there are some deficiencies when it comes to assignments. In many courses assignments are simply multiple choice or giving a numeric solution to a problem. Essays are graded through peer-review which isn't ideal but still has more benefits than I think critics give it credit for. I just finished grading three 500-700 word written assignments for the Coursera Holocaust course. They were graded on a scale of 0-3. The first two papers I graded were merely regurgitated from the lecture videos. Still I had to give them a grade of 2 because the readings themselves were not required for the course so if they didn't purchase any of the books or videos (which were generally not available through popular video streaming services) all they had to work from were the lectures. Still I felt they could have drawn more conclusions from the lectures rather than simply summarize. The third paper discussed aspects of the readings that were not found on the lectures and asked interesting questions so I gave it a 3. Not an ideal system but when there are thousands of essays to grade what other option is there? I think the word count could have been higher though but for a first writing assignment it was fine.
Some courses are much more conducive to automated grading. Programming courses can test to see if your code does what it should. Math and science courses also tend to have problems that lend themselves to automated grading. The problem with grading is highlighted in courses such as The Holocaust where multiple choice problems have a hard time assessing the same things that an on-campus course would. This is supposedly mollified by discussion forums but in my experiences these haven't been as useful as they could be.
The problem, at least for me, is that I simply don't use them that often. In some courses, like the UPenn Calculus course the forums were great because there would be a specific homework problem and you could find the appropriate thread and go in and discuss that problem. In a course like The Holocaust the threads are far more varied and not as interesting at least from my point of view.
I am looking forward to the first upper level math class that gets offered as a MOOC. A number theory or even an algebra course would be fantastic, and there is already a set of algebra lecture videos from Harvard. A multiple choice format would not work at all for the assessment since these courses are all about writing proofs. I actually think that peer review would work well here. Everyone submits their proofs then during the grading the course staff releases a few different proofs that satisfy the problem along with some grading rubric similar to what they have for AP exam graders. For example they could say something like "If they forgot to mention that the set is non-empty take off 1 point." Most peer review assignments have each person grade their own paper as well as a few of their peers. I always find this silly because I wouldn't submit something I didn't think was worth the maximum points anyway. A system like this would help the learner develop a brutal honesty with respect to their work.
I would like to finish by talking about how my MOOC experience compares to my other experiences with distance-learning courses. My first experience was an online linear algebra course. I had a great professor who went through great lengths to prepare the lectures in a format that worked well within the structure of an online course. I had a great relationship with this professor, having already taken a course with him and taking a concurrent course on algebra so he was very available for questions. The demands placed on us were the same as those who took a physical linear algebra class. If I am being honest I have to admit that the quality of that class was greater than the traditional MOOC primarily because of the availability of the instructor as well as the higher quantity and better feedback relating to homework and test problems. If edX ever offers Gilbert Strang's linear algebra course from MIT OCW I expect that it will be similar in quality though.
The comparison between MOOCs and the for-profit online universities is no contest, MOOCs win by a landslide. I am almost done with an MBA from Capella University and that program is a joke. Someone with a 2-year degree from a community college in business would have learned just as much, if not more. The strength of an MBA program is the quality of the students around you, in my opinion. Being able to discuss strategy with your peers and professors is invaluable. The bar is set so low at Capella that I've received A's in classes that I spent no more than a half hour a week on. The finance course that was offered for free on Coursera by the University of Michigan was a country mile better than the $2500 finance course from Capella.
I am finishing up the Coursera course on competitive strategy at the same time that I am finishing my Capella course on the same thing. The coursera class has much better discussions, video lectures (can you believe that for the $20,000 or so you spend at an online university they don't have any lectures?), and even the problems are more interesting. All that is required to do well in the Capella course is to write a few discussion posts each week that you could do without the reading as well as a few papers that you can do well on by briefly touching on a few points that they highlight in the grading rubric and making sure to use proper APA citations. Of course the Coursera course only requires you to do well on multiple choice assignments that you can take up to three times with different problems each time. But one is free and one costs a couple of thousand dollars.
I signed up for Capella at a time when the short-term financial benefits it provided outweighed the long-term disadvantages to me but now that I am almost completed the fact that it is an accredited school is a shameful indictment of the accreditation process.

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