Sunday, November 25, 2012


No, this isn't some new racial epithet, nor is it the plaintive mewling of a speech-impaired cow. Rather, a MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course.

The concept isn't particularly new, but it is starting to approach critical mass. The idea is that people can take courses from the comfort of their homes, completing assignments at their own speed. The creators of these classes, usually tenured professors at various universities throughout the world, are able to reach tens of thousands of people in a single course. And did I mention they are free?

I recently read an interesting article by Clay Shirky in which he compares MOOCs to established universities as MP3s were to the record industry: the open nature, cheap/free cost, and ability to consume only that which is desired (as opposed to buying the "whole package" just for a few choice tidbits) have all created a challenge that the "establishment" must address.

My point here is not to get into a discussion about whether or not higher education is doomed (though that is an intriguing discussion, perhaps saved for another time.) Rather, I'd like to say that I've participated in a MOOC firsthand, and it was pretty cool.

I took a 7 week course that introduced me to computer programming. I learned about the Python language and how the syntax worked. I spent perhaps 1-2 hours a week on watching videos, doing formative quizzes and exercises, and I completed a final exam. 

This particular course was offered through the University of Toronto. I received no credit in the traditional sense, but did receive a "certificate of completion" which is awarded if a student earns at least a 70. The prideful part of me wishes they would also print my final score (98.2 FTW), but this is not the case.

[[** Edit: I'm sitting here writing this and all of a sudden NPR's "Weekend Edition" starts with a piece about MOOCs. 9:30am 11/24/12. Divine providence.

** New Edit: I'm finishing up my piece here at 11:30am 11/25/12 and I run across this article. It seems that this topic is hitting the mainstream news at exactly the same time as I am pondering it.]]

OK, so deeper ramification aside, why should we (specifically middle- or high-school teachers, in particular) care? I see MOOCs as useful in two primary ways.

  1. Professional Development: We can expand, review, and deepen our knowledge of our own subjects and interests. They help to keep us engaged in learning. They humble us to remember what it's like to be a student again.
  2. Student Enrichment: For the students who absorb everything you say like a sponge and can never have enough, you can steer them to these courses for even more knowledge. A mature high school student could easily handle the workload of these courses if it is a subject that he or she enjoys. 
  3. [[Edit: Thanks to my wonderful wife Ilana, a music librarian at Boston Conservatory, for this additional piece of advice. 12:20pm 11/25/12]] Career Exploration: For those students who may be interested in a new or unexplored career path, MOOCs provide a good, low-risk environment for testing the waters.
So I saved all the useful stuff for the end. How do you access these MOOCs? Here are some of the more well known venues:
  • Coursera - This is the MOOC I used to take my programming class. It was very straightforward. I think it offers the most diversity in offerings (humanities, sciences, math, computer science, etc).
  • Udacity - Both Udacity and edX have more limited options than Coursera. They focus mainly on math, computer science, and "hard sciences" (i.e. physics, chemistry, etc).
  • edX - See above.
  • Khan Academy - A slightly older MOOC and perhaps most well-known. A man set out to create tutorials for his nephews and ended up creating a giant infrastructure of videos. I think this is more or less arranged as a library of information as opposed to specific courses one may take. Focuses mainly on math, science, and economics, but it is starting to branch out.
  • MIT OpenCourseWare - These are videos offered exclusively through MIT. Essentially they have made videos of professors lecturing, and included the notes and some quizzes. Strong focus on math and sciences, though some humanities are also present.
One thing you may notice is that most of these sites heavily lean to math and the sciences. Coursera, and, to a lesser extent, Khan Academy and MIT OCW, have more humanities. I think this may be part of the structure of these classes. Humanities tend to focus on good discussions that take place in a face-to-face context. Though one can certainly blog or interact via message-boards, the immediacy and nuance of a classroom discussion can be lost in the virtual world. That said, I hope these MOOCs branch out some more, because humanities are an important part of a well-rounded education (full disclosure: I am a Latin teacher and think humanities form the foundation from which good technical thinking must emerge.)

That about wraps it up. I will be interested to see how the political and philosophical ramifications unfold concerning this free access to information. But for now, I am content to say that these courses are great resources for the curious and autodidacts of the world. scientia omnia vincit!

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