In general, I think that MOOCs are a great option for motivated learners with a specific goal. The course offerings are far more specialized than what you’d find at a local adult education center or community college, and the price (most often free) is certainly appealing. You can work on your MOOC anywhere with an Internet connection, at any time of the day or night. Many MOOCs consist of online video lectures: great because you can pause the video, rewind it, look up a quick Wikipedia entry of a concept you don’t completely get, and so on. For example my MOOC goal is to learn more about the science behind the international development documents I translate, so I’m currently taking Epidemics: the dynamics of infectious diseases, offered by a team from Penn State.
The range of MOOCs is really staggering: right now on the Coursera home page, you can sign up for courses ranging from Jazz Improvisation (taught by professors from the Berklee College of Music), to Bioinformatics Algorithms (UC San Diego), to a French course on business valuation (HEC Paris). The schools that offer these courses are top-notch, and thus they present an opportunity to take a course that is logistically and financially out of the reach of many people. MOOC providers are also getting more savvy about what their students want: in the course I’m currently taking, you can get a certificate of completion (for getting at least an 80% on all assessments) or a verified certificate with distinction (for getting 100% on all assessments). Coursera’s newly launched signature program has already earned over $1 million, focusing on students who want to earn a credential from their MOOCs.
In just these two experiences, I’ve learned that all MOOCs are not created equal. The first MOOC I took was a general public health class and it was fine. It was certainly more interesting than reading a public health textbook, especially since I do not have a strong formal science background. However, the course was not really created for the online learning format: most of the video lectures were taken with a camera in the back of the room during the professor’s live lectures, and they were uploaded in fairly long segments. In addition, the fact that the in-person students seemed a little disengaged from the material (professor would ask questions and have to wait for answers, or no one would answer) detracted from the experience. By contrast, the Epidemics MOOC that I’m currently taking is outstanding. The class has a huge team of instructors and developers, and was obviously developed specifically for this purpose. The videos are short (about 6 minutes each) and have excellent animations that accompany them. The videos are narrated by a bunch of different people, so they don’t get monotonous. In addition, the staff seems to be spending a huge amount of time contributing to the online discussion boards for the class. So, a huge shoutout to the Epidemics MOOC staff!
In my opinion, here are some caveats about the MOOC experience: if, like me, you’re doing a MOOC because you realize that, uh-oh, you should have paid better attention in those “throwaway” core classes in college? You’re in the right place. I was too busy thinking lofty literary thoughts in college (and graduate school for that matter) to worry about the difference between macroparasites and microparasites. Now, I’m regretting that impulse, but Coursera has come to the rescue. In addition, I think that some of the classic criticisms of MOOCs, such as “there’s no interaction with the instructor,” “all of the assessments are multiple choice and graded by computer,” and so on, also apply to many of the courses one would take as an in-person student at a large research university. Many of my friends who went to such universities were largely taught by grad students during their first few years. If you took an in-person course with 250 students in a lecture hall, you would not get personal attention or individually-graded assignments, and you’d be paying a lot more than $0 for the experience.
Personally, I do not see MOOCs as a substitute for a solid, in-person, general education. I would not encourage my own daughter to bypass an undergraduate degree in favor of MOOCs. I agree that the human interaction element of education is important, and I even agree that grad students can be excellent teachers. But for those of us who already have that general education and want to fine-tune our knowledge, I think that MOOCs are a great solution.