MOOC Brigade: Free Online Classes, Speeded Up a Notch

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I’m almost done with the six-week course on gamification I’ve been taking as part of TIME’s look at Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). I’ve watched most of the video lectures by class leader Kevin Werbach of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. I’ve taken four quizzes and completed three written assignments. All that would seem to stand between me and a certificate marking my completion of the course are a few more lectures and the final exam.

Some notes on the experience as we enter the home stretch:

Professor Werbach’s lectures are pretty efficient information-delivery devices, in part because they’re not interactive—there’s no small talk or interruptions. But part of the way through the course, I realized that it was possible to make the lectures even zippier by ratcheting up the playback speed. At 1.5x speed, he’s still intelligible, and what he’s saying still seeps into my brain—he sounds less like Alvin the Chipmunk than he does like John Moschitta, the fast-talking guy from those old FedEx commercials. It’s a guilt-free way to get through class a bit quicker. (At 2x speed, though, he really does sound like he’s about to blow a gasket.)

(MORE: MOOC Brigade: Who Is Taking Massive Open Online Courses, And Why?)

The multiple-choice quizzes feel pretty much like computerized versions of the ones I took with paper and pencil back in the 1980s. (I don’t like them any better this time around, although I’ve managed to improve my score a bit with each one.) But the written assignments are fundamentally different, because they’re graded not by the instructor or a teaching assistant, but by other students, anonymously. The scoring system is very simple—a couple of numbers which seem to be designed mainly to identify whether the work in question meets a basic level of adequacy—and I’m not sure whether the faceless classmates who judged my work know any more about gamification than I do. (They also seem to err on the side of excessive kindness. One said that I had failed to follow the assignment’s instructions, but that I deserved a perfect score anyhow.) I do understand why this peer-review system is in place, though: with more than 80,000 people taking the class, it’s the only way to ensure that every assignment gets judged by a human being.

(MORE: Is Online Teacher Training Good for Public Education?)

Minor technical problems have continued to occasionally bedevil the course. At one point, a bug apparently prevented some students from seeing their assignments; on another day, Coursera suffered an outage that was lengthy enough that homework deadlines were extended by nine hours. I’m not squawking: the class is pretty remarkable, especially considering that it’s free. But the Coursera platform, which has only been around since April, still feels like a beta.

The course has many of the trappings of traditional higher education, but it’s fundamentally different from college in its for-real form. Tens of thousands of people are taking it independently, and largely in solitude. The tangible downsides of failure are insignificant: if you drop out or flub all the homework, you won’t waste any money, hinder your ability to take additional courses or face public humiliation. Even Professor Werbach probably won’t notice. The only real reason to stick with the classes and assignments is if you find his teaching to be interesting and useful—which I do.

MORE: Why the Online-Education Craze Will Leave Many Students Behind
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