Coursera

The debate about MOOCs last year made me deeply uneasy. On one hand, I am not in favor of granting course credit at accredited institutions for MOOCs for a variety of reasons. I have reservations even about purely online classes within the university, but that may be a topic for another day. On the other hand, while some theoretical concerns with MOOCs were and have been proven justified, some of the rhetoric seemed borne of ignorance and fear that ones of the only marketable commodities professors have–classroom time–would become worthless. At the same time, it smacked of a desire to preserve at least a modicum of the ivory tower, though this may have largely been unconscious. Opponents condemned MOOCs without actually seeing them in action. My stance was that I would have to take a course or three before passing judgement.

So a few weeks ago, I signed up for a Coursera account. I have not yet taken a course, partly because my semester became busier than I anticipated right after I signed up, but here are some immediate impressions.

  1. Courses designed to directly impart facts and skills are better represented than are the humanities and lab sciences. This observation is hardly novel, but I think it is one of the more important components. The few English/Humanities classes I saw on the site emphasized that as a free course, most if not all of the course materials would be available free through the class or otherwise online. It is an appropriate decision, I think, but it also drastically limits the options for the topics that the classes can cover. Likewise, it would be hard to teach an online lab chemistry class in this format. Teaching a basic accounting, stat, or programming course, on the other hand, would be well suited for the online course.
  2. Could MOOCs, like many Advanced Placement classes in high school, allow students to test out of requirements without offering course credit? I know that some colleges will accept course credit for some AP courses, but the courses I took in high school could be counted towards the required courses. If the student proved their proficiency they could focus further on his or her chosen field or other electives. For instance, here at the University of Missouri, undergraduates have a laundry list of requirements, at least a few of which a MOOC completed at a high enough proficiency (or other test administered upon completion) could qualify for. The student would have to fulfill the same number of total credits for graduation, but the requirement reduced or waived.
  3. One thing that I noticed was that courses varied in length. The college semester usually runs fifteen weeks, but some of the MOOCs were over in just six weeks. I don’t want to place a value judgement on the length since some topics can be covered in six weeks, and some that really should be longer than fifteen. I am sympathetic to the idea of shaping the course length to the topic rather than feeling constrained, but if any credit is going to be granted, there should be some standard (unfortunately, the same principle behind the credit hour).
  4. Noted above, some of the courses shape the required readings around the idea that students should not need extraordinary resources to complete the readings. To my mind, this highlights one of the greatest advantages of a university campus in education: library and library resources. Before graduating from Brandeis, I used the library to access as many articles as I could because I was about to lose access to journals and I have heard multiple academics comment that one of their most pressing concerns after graduating but before being employed is library access because it is necessary to continue researching. I am not a fan of pay-walls for academic articles, but it is one of the realities faced by anyone seeking to extend the reach of college classes beyond the campus.
  5. The best thing about MOOCs is that it enables continuing education, whether that is for various certifications, workplace skills, or encouraging curiosity, all of which I am in favor of and if this was the only purpose MOOCs served, I would encourage them. Saying so may be seen as a betrayal of the university business model since I am in favor of some people who may be willing to pay for university courses, but I think that the MOOC model works for workplace certification more so than does the university. If people can get those skills that will help them more easily and cheaply from a MOOC than from a university or college, then they absolutely should do so.

Once I get a chance to actually take a few courses I may come back with some more thoughts.

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