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.

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