Thursday, January 31, 2013

My Adventure With A MOOC

Overstatement is never a good thing. 

...the budding revolution in global online higher education. Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty — by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems... more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC, platforms that are being developed by the likes of Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and companies like Coursera and Udacity. --Thomas Friedman, NY Times, 1/26/13

He's talking about college professors video recording lectures, superimposing their faces over a digital whiteboard or powerpoint slides, embedding quick quizzes to check for understanding, and giving regular tests for students to demonstrate their learning. NOTHING else has more potential to lift more people out of poverty?

I recently finished my first MOOC, using the Coursera platform mentioned by Friedman in his article.  The course, Drugs and the Brain was offered through Cal Tech. I thought it might give me a little more credibility in writing about the value of MOOCs, and as a Psychology teacher I wanted to learn more about the biology behind the interactions between drugs and the brain.

Overall, I would rate my experience as quite positive.

1)I had an opportunity to learn for free from a very accomplished instructor through a prestigious University.

2) While I could have probably found most of the information shared somewhere on the internet, having an instructor narrow the focus and give it meaningful direction added an efficiency to the process that made it possible.

3) With two jobs, three children, and a terrible writing habit, finding the time to leave home for three to five hours a week to sit in on a class is not an option.  This course was accessible.

4) Related to the third, this course was for personal and professional growth. I wasn't interested in showing full mastery or the capacity to continue a course of study or move forward in a sequence. I was able to casually devote whatever time I wished to sacrifice without the "de-motivator" of no credit or a bad grade.

I accomplished my goal through this course. I can't explain much of what I learned, and truthfully, I still don't understand some of it.  But, when I teach my students about neurons in the brain and how chemicals in the body function, I can do so with a little more clarity and understanding of my own.  I am more confident with the level of material that I'm supposed to know than before I took this class.

But does it really have the potential to "unlock a billion more brains to solve the worlds problems."  My experience wasn't all that.

1) The first two weeks were so far over my head, I learned very little. I was able to take the quizzes a first time and return to the class notes with more focused study for a second or third attempt. This process of quizzing, studying, and requizzing helped me learn a bit more.  From the discussion threads, I gather that many in the course considered this cheating. I considered this, but as a consumer, I took the course with a different purpose than finding out how high I could rank among other students. But this presents a clear problem with the platform-- how will it measure student learning in a fair way considering many of the courses have thousands of students enrolled.

2) Other than accessibility and convenience, there is little difference in the instruction from a traditional college course. It involved lectures and testing. The instructor was good, but even in a room with other humans, lecture without interaction is tedious.  The topics were delivered in 5-15 minute segments, but still accounted to hours a week of lecture. By week three, I resorted to setting the playback speed to 1.5x and 2.0x by week four, slowing down for items of interest or pausing for better understanding.  Week five was the most relevant topic for my learning goals, but other commitments that week led me to skimming over the lecture slides and giving the quiz a shot without watching the lectures. I do plan to go back and watch them, but this doesn't look much different than typical behavior in a traditional setting.

3) The course instructor notes in comments on Friedman's article that they plan to award 4400 statements of completion and remarks that the online community has generated more than 5000 postings. Over a five week course that averages to 1000/week. I considered participating in this community, but the number of people and volume of posts were overwhelming. The serious difference in MOOCs, and other forms of online courses shows itself the most here. In the half-dozen or so other online courses that I've taken, I've been a part of a community of 8-30 people, expected to interact with each other.

4) Finally, I found it easier to "compensate" for what I didn't know than to put the effort into learning it.  I ignored formulas and calculations throughout the course because they involved skills that I either didn't possess or hadn't used in several decades. I knew it would take a little time to brush up and figure out how to do it, but I also knew that the cost of not learning would be minimal and I wouldn't find myself needing it in the future anyway.

I would rather end on a positive note than a negative about my MOOC experience.  The only reason I bring up the negatives is to place a little reality check on the praise.  There is a place for MOOCs in the world of education.  They provide a valuable service that cannot be provided any other way in our current world.  I am enrolled in two more courses through Coursera for this calendar year and look forward to them.

But, they aren't going to save the world.  Maybe they'll make a boot shaped dent that's better than nothing, but they won't replace education as we know it.  And if we think they will, and try to make it happen sooner rather than later by not supporting public preK through college education appropriately, we might find that our adventure in MOOCs could have the opposite of the rosy effect Mr. Friedman predicts.

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