MOOC Brigade: Will Massive, Open Online Courses Revolutionize Higher Education?

On the plus side, MOOCs are free, open to anyone and taught by professors at prestigious universities. On the downside, they have low completion rates, and critics questions the utility of students being graded by their peers. TIME is enrolling in several of these classes to see what all the fuss is about

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Johannes Simon / Getty Images

Sebastian Thrun of Stanford University speaks during the Digital Life Design conference (DLD) at HVB Forum on January 23, 2012 in Munich, Germany.

Correction Appended: Sept. 5, 2012

MOOC may be a silly-sounding acronym, but this new breed of online classes is shaking up the higher education world in ways that could be good for cash-strapped students and terrible for cash-strapped colleges. Taking a class online might not sound revolutionary—after all, in the fall of 2010, 6.1 million students were enrolled in at least one online course. But those classes were pretty similar to the bricks-and-mortar kind, in that students paid fees to enroll in classes taught and graded by a professor and some teaching assistants. But MOOCs, short for massive open online courses, are a different animal. They can be taken by hundreds of thousands of students at the same time. And perhaps the most striking thing about MOOCs, many of which are being taught by professors at prestigious universities, is that they’re free.

Since MOOCs first made waves in the fall of 2011, when then-Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun opened his graduate-level artificial intelligence course up to any student anywhere and 160,000 students in more than 190 countries signed up, the free online classes have been heralded as revolutionary, the future, the single most important experiment that will democratize higher education and end the era of overpriced colleges. Thrun has even gone so far as to say he envisions a future in which there will only need to be 10 universities in the world. In January, he launched Udacity, a private educational organization, offering a dozen courses that anyone can sign up for and complete at his or her own pace; it now says it has more than 739,000 students. A similar company, created by two Stanford computer science professors, called Coursera, launched in April with four major university partners—Stanford, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton. Since then, Coursera, which features humanities as well as science courses, has added more big-name partners, including Duke, the University of Washington and the University of Virginia, and says it has one million registered students. The third major player in this space, edX, was launched by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University in May. It has a more limited, high-level course catalog, but announced in July that the University of California-Berkeley was joining.

There is a lot of excitement and fear and overblown rhetoric surrounding MOOCs. While some say free, online courses are a great way to increase minority enrollment, others have said they will leave many students behind. Some critics have said that MOOCs promote an unrealistic one-size-fits-all model of higher education and that there is no replacement for true dialogue between a professor and his or her students. In a column for The New York Times in May, David Brooks said research has shown online education is roughly as effective as in-person learning, noting that online learning “seems especially useful in language and remedial education. But, he wrote, “A brain is not a computer. We are not blank hard drives waiting to be filled with data. People learn from people they love and remember the things that arouse emotion.” Some critics worry that online students will miss out on the social aspects of college.

Despite all the hype and the marquis players involved, the first few MOOCs have not been without issue. Of the thousands of students who have signed up for the classes, only about 10% complete them, and some professors have expressed concern that it’s nearly impossible to grade a student’s work if you have no way to verify if the student is in fact the person completing the work. Indeed, in the first few courses taught over the summer at Coursera, dozens of students in at least three classes complained that their work was copied by students. (Coursera added an honor code in response to the reports of plagiarism.) And even in this social-media savvy era, plenty of people are wondering how much students will learn in some MOOCs when it is their peers rather than their professors who are doing the grading.

To see what all the fuss is about, a handful of TIME editors and writers are signing up for MOOCs and will be blogging about the experience in order to give readers a sense of what it’s like to take a free, massive online course. Editor at Large Harry McCracken, a self-described gadget nerd who writes about consumer technology for the magazine and TIME.com, is enrolling in Coursera’s Gamification course to learn how digital game elements and design techniques apply to non-game business and social problems. Brad Tuttle, who covers personal finance, travel and parenting for TIME.com, will be taking Coursera’s Introduction to Mathematical Thinking. Writer-Reporter Nate Rawlings has already started Coursera’s Intro to Sustainability course (and scored 100% on his first quiz). And photo editor Alexander Ho will learn the basics of computer programming in Udacity’s Intro to Computer Science course.

As for me, I’ll be taking Coursera’s Securing Digital Democracy course—a timely class given the upcoming election—that will cover the risks and potential of electronic and Internet voting. This isn’t my first encounter with online education, although my previous experience was of the traditional variety. As part of my bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington, I took a web-based environmental science course. I took the class because I needed a science credit, and rumor had it the class was a breeze. The rumor was true: I didn’t watch a single lecture, but passed the class with an above-average grade by completing a group project and pulling an all-nighter before the final exam (which, by the way, was the only time I bothered to download the professor’s PowerPoint slides). Needless to say, I’m hoping with a little added investment on my part, my latest foray into online education will be much different from my first one. Then again, my Coursera class started yesterday, so I already have some catching up to do.

Kayla Webley is a Staff Writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kaylawebley, on Facebook or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

Correction: The original version of this story stated that David Brooks said online is only roughly half as effective as classroom learning.

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