MOOC Brigade: Back to School, 26 Years Later

As Coursera signs up more top-tier schools, TIME's technology writer weighs in on the gamification class taught by Wharton's Kevin Werbach

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For years now, I’ve had a recurring nightmare. (You might have it too.) In it, I’m in college again — and I’m about to be denied my degree because I stopped going to my classes. I wake up, agitated and sweaty. It’s always a massive relief when I snap back to full consciousness and remember that I did graduate, more than a quarter-century ago, and nobody can make me go back to school.

Except here I am taking a university-level course again — willingly, even.

I’m participating in a TIME experiment in which several staffers are signing up for massive online open courses, or MOOCs. These are free classes, often taught by accomplished university professors, that take place entirely on the Web and are open to anyone who registers and does the work.

(MORE: MOOC Brigade: Will Massive Open Online Courses Revolutionize Higher Education?)

Once again, I have to attend classes, take tests and submit written assignments, all of which I can do from any location that has an Internet-connected computer. I’m two weeks in and it’s been fun, interesting and challenging. Parts of it still leave the same butterflies in my stomach that I remember from the mid-1980s.

Then again, even if I blow this course, it won’t be a life-changing fiasco — just an embarrassment that I’ll be forced to share with you here. Students who get at least a 70 will receive a certificate, but this isn’t a true college class and doesn’t provide credit toward a degree.

I’m taking a six-week course on gamification, the practice of applying gamelike techniques to things that aren’t games, such as marketing efforts and business processes. It’s being conducted on a site called Coursera by Kevin Werbach. Among other things, he’s an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, where he co-organized the first university course on the subject.

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Professor Werbach does most of his teaching in the form of prerecorded video lectures that students can watch on demand. In them, he sits in front of a bookshelf rather than mill about in front of a chalkboard. (If any young people are reading this, help me out: Do university lecturers use chalkboards anymore?) His talks have an informal, intimate feel, even though the content is canned, not interactive.

I haven’t talked to any of my fellow students so far, but that’s my own fault; there are forums where we can discuss the course as it progresses. So far, I’ve just been lurking.

Some other notes on the course:

• There are 76,000 people registered for the class, which is more than twice the entire current enrollment for my alma mater, Boston University. Only 13,000 turned in the first written assignment on time. I wonder how many of us will still be at it when the final exam rolls around?

• The course may be free and short, but it’s also meaty. Turns out I’m less informed about gamification than I thought I was.

• At first, I played the lectures and kept tabs on them while doing other stuff (like my day job), as if I were listening to a TED talk. But this is a real course, with many hours of ambitious material and ongoing quizzes and homework. Paying attention isn’t optional.

• I’m not any better at taking tests than I was when I was a real student. Actually, I might be worse: I’m rusty at the whole idea. My scores for the first two graded quizzes were in the 80s, and I got at least one answer wrong because I failed to read the question properly.

(MORE: Can Computers Replace Teachers?)

• I feel better about my first written assignment, in which I played a cereal-company executive writing a 300-word memo on why a new line of breakfast pastries should be promoted through gamification. But I haven’t gotten my grade, which will be based on peer review by my fellow students. I hope they’re kinder to me than I was to some of the folks whose work I rated.

• Technology may make MOOCs like this one possible, but it can also wreak havoc with them. A few days ago, a problem with authentication led Coursera’s site to mistakenly inform some registered students that they weren’t signed up for the class after all. And one morning last week, an outage at Web-services company GoDaddy — supposedly caused by members of hacker pseudo-group Anonymous — interfered with the course. (I didn’t experience either of these glitches myself.)

• When I was browsing the Web for information on the course, I found a fellow student asking others to provide answers to the first quiz on Yahoo Answers. It turns out that cheating — like plagiarizing Wikipedia material — is a problem on Coursera. I’m not sure how widespread it is, though: even if a few dozen of my thousands of classmates are cheats, it’s possible we’re a more honest bunch than some of the scholars at a certain Ivy League university I know.

More thoughts to come as the course proceeds.

MORE: Student-Loan Debt: Is There Really a Crisis? 

14 comments
xiuxiuluo
xiuxiuluo

how to legislate this course? can i legislate it now?

Daniel Nascimento
Daniel Nascimento

You really shouldn't differentiate "real" students and MOOC students... We are all real students.

testdrivecollege.com
testdrivecollege.com

There was never an age limit when it comes to learning. I am moved by the story above. I has reminded me that we need to continuously learn and study.  

testdrivecollege.com
testdrivecollege.com

It is never too late to study. Take note learning is a continuous process. And so long as there is an opportunity  for us to learn then we should grab it!

Roberta Zouain
Roberta Zouain

You should really give forums and Facebook groups (the "official" one for Gamification has over 3K members and high level discussions) a try. As it often happens in "real" school, the best sometimes happens outside the classroom.

cynthia macmillan
cynthia macmillan

Hi,  I am one of your classmates in the Gamification course.  Enjoying the course, but it is hard to link up with the other 76,000 folks who are taking it.  Agree Werbach is very knowledgeable.  Not sure about the peer grading, but learning a lot.  The final written assignment is not easy. Enjoyed your article.

M Loyalty Payments
M Loyalty Payments

@ChiefBoardOp:twitter excellent point but people dont understand it. 

Other way of looking at plagiarism challenges for @coursera may be partner with online websites which searches the web for copy material. I was using one @SJSU (turnitin I think) I dont remember the name. But that could add value to the system as well as during the result show a Progress bar with RED to Yellow to GREEN color denoting percentage of copied material. 

Raggedhand
Raggedhand

I think cheating is deplorable anyway, but cheating on an online class that's not for real credit? That's pathetic. It's like cheating at solitaire.

zza371creek
zza371creek

I do love the classes. It is a great way for me to update skills for work and life. Some classes i have taken and passed others i just like taking the class to see what it is about but i never do the quiz or anything.

I have also taken and passed free online classes from Yale and Harvard. 

The sites are making money by matching skills up to employers. I got a email on the site not that long ago from a employer who liked some of the Discussions i posted. I have also noticed that not everyone that signs up is a student some of them are head hunters looking for people(which they charge a fee to these people).I do think this is the future of education. One in which you can take a class from any place and it matches you up with people who need the skills. I always felt even when i finished college a few years back our current education model is  out of date. We teach high level math and reading as well as many sciences that just are not used that much in the real world. A great example is calculus vs statics. Our schools push out tons of kids who know calculus however most places are looking for people who know statics. While i get the point of colleges "to be more well rounded". I think in this day and age with the net that model is out dated.  Since people become more well rounded and learn new things by looking it via the net.  The problem in our modern world is matching the skills up with the places that need the skills. I don't think many colleges will be around in 100 years most will probably move over to being research and development companies. And most people will be taken classes like this online for free. The only problem is as more and more people get education and college the value of it goes down. I can see a future in which college education does not get you a better life. I also have noticed more and more overseas college given classes on it. I can see this being the start of the "outsourcing" of education to help bring down the cost as well.

vintage274
vintage274

In answer to your question -- universities now use smart boards instead of chalkboards. That way the instructor can both write on the board with a dry erase and make computer presentations through film, PowerPoint, slide shows, etc. I am 64 years old and can no longer teach due to a disability. I also no longer have a car, so I'm pretty much stuck at home with reading as my primary intellectual outlet. I have two Masters degrees and a plethora of credits in areas I have been interested in over the years. Coursera has given me a lifeline for keeping my intellectual life alive and kicking.  Every older adult I have told about it has embraced it with enthusiasm. Hooray for the new advances in educating ALL of America.

Madhusudan Rao
Madhusudan Rao

It has been fun taking the course so far - surely a sign of future education!

Socrates
Socrates

I'm taking the same course.  Werbach is a very good lecturer.  Even with the glitches it has been an interesting experience.  Not so sure about the final written assignment of 1500 words.  Hang in there, Harry!

ChiefBoardOp
ChiefBoardOp

The thing is simple anyone can game a system but in doing so  is that education or faking it till you make it values?  You either learn how to study and retain ideas or you find a way to  acquire answers to the problem from some other sources  Cheating yourself of the gain of mastery of that knowledge.  With no mastery of a subject then you must grade yourself to be less than educated defeating the logic of your path to true success  in that part of your life.

You harm yourself and Others when you take that path.  Especially if you become some form of Credentialed  profession   whether it is a Doctor of Medicine,  Pharmacist Lawyer,  C P A,  or a Laborer  in the Trades  that has to understand  Codes to properly do those jobs.     Avoiding the time it takes to prepare  you lose the foundation needed to safely preform for others your chosen work for income and falsely take that income from others while possibly risking the life health or safety of others by your methods  of work . 


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