MOOC Brigade: What I Learned From Learning Online

Our tech writer assesses his six-week experience in Coursera's massive open online course on gamification

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TIME’s cover package this week is on reinventing college in general and specifically on whether a new breed of online megacourses can finally offer higher education to more people for less money. That story dives deep into Udacity, which was co-founded by a former Stanford professor. I’ve been looking into rival Coursera, which has partnered with dozens of prestigious schools, including Princeton, Duke and the University of Virginia. After six weeks of participating in Coursera’s massive open online course (MOOC) on gamification, conducted by Kevin Werbach of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, I’ve successfully completed my studies and earned a certificate. Or at least I’m pretty sure I have.

Actually, Coursera hasn’t told me what my final grade is—it’ll show up within a few weeks, the site says—but I followed the calculations provided by a fellow student in the class forums, and I think I got an 83. That’s more than good enough to receive the certificate, but not enough to brag about.

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Then again, I very nearly did better. As I rummaged through my records, I learned that I was penalized for completing the third homework quiz a day late. That surprised me, because my memory was that I squeaked it in right before the deadline of 9pm on Sept. 18.

Wrong! It was due at 8:59:00pm, one minute before 9pm. I apparently pressed the submit button at 8:59:32. On Coursera, being 32 seconds late counts as blowing the deadline by an entire day, which seems mean. And hey—I completed the final exam four days ahead of schedule, without receiving any bonus points for doing so.

Upon learning about this infraction, I seethed briefly and considered complaining about the unfairness of it all in the forums. If I’d done so, I wouldn’t have looked like the lone churl: the message boards are rife with students squawking about course policies, second-guessing the questions in the quizzes and begging that the rules be bent for one reason or another. I found most of their gripes to be preposterous and decided not to join their number.

Of course, the fact that I was even temporarily ticked off about my grade is probably a good sign that the class was meaningful; if it hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have cared.

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I’m also taking Coursera’s side in a brief but very odd skirmish it had last week with the state of Minnesota. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, the Gopher State’s Office of Higher Education told Coursera that the company had never received required authorization to conduct online courses there. Coursera  responded by amending its terms of service to tell users that they must agree not to take courses unless the majority of their work will be done outside of the state. Bloggers ridiculed Minnesota for banning free classes that do not offer credits, and officials quickly clarified that Coursera and other free MOOC providers are in the clear.

The state’s law applies to universities. As much as I enjoyed my Coursera encounter, I never mistook it for higher education of the sort which should be regulated: it took me one minute to sign up for the course, and my certificate, assuming I earned it, won’t count as credit toward earning a college degree. All the PR flap did last week is discourage Minnesotans from partaking in an excellent free service that might teach them something.

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So will I take another Coursera class? At the moment, I’m still enjoying my reduced slate of weekly obligations now that I’m done with the first one; not having to worry about lectures, quizzes and written assignments is downright relaxing. But I enjoyed the experience and wound up a believer in MOOCs, so I hope to be back.

If I do this again, I’ll do a few things differently:

I’ll carve off more time. Learning, even from an engaging instructor such as Werbach, is hard. It demands your full attention. I did best with the gamification classes when I wasn’t distracted by work and other competing activities, and worst when I treated them like podcasts which I could listen to as background noise.

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I’ll choose the course carefully. I didn’t sign up for gamification because I was passionate about that particular topic; I did so because it is tangentially related to the industry I cover. It did turn out to be a rewarding experience, but not one in which I had a deep emotional investment. If I return to Coursera, it’ll be for a subject I’m more hungry to learn about—something like The Modern World: History Since 1760.

I’ll try harder to be part of the community. The single biggest difference between the Coursera class I took online and the conventional courses I took decades ago in a bricks-and-mortar college was that I experienced Werbach’s video lessons in solitude, without other students asking questions, making comments and otherwise being part of the experience. That discussion went on in the forums. I lurked there, but I never dove into the conversation—even though the lectures were interspersed with specific requests to do so. I regret being so passive.

Ultimately, Coursera and other MOOCs complement traditional higher education rather than encroaching on it. By making serious learning free and (relatively) easy, they make it a lot more tempting to make learning into a lifetime endeavor. Even for people like me who were just as happy to be finished with school in the first place.

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