MOOCs and online learning

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are gaining popularity, prompting much discussion among those involved in higher education. Some champion the spread of knowledge through technology, while others call MOOCs the death knell of higher education as we know it, and still others point out that the MOOC experience cannot replace the traditional college experience. There are now a number of companies and institutions that offer a platform for MOOCs: there’s Coursera, edX (founded by MIT and Harvard), Udemy, Stanford Engineering Everywhere (SEE), and many others.

The Boston Globe recently profiled Lexington “writer and entrepreneur” Jonathan Haber, who has set himself the goal of earning “a one-year MOOC BA,” taking a range of classes on a variety of platforms in 2013 – certainly an interesting way of achieving firsthand knowledge on the issue. I can’t speak (or write) with such first-hand authority, having never taken a MOOC myself, but I did take some online and “blended” classes (some in-person meetings, some online lectures and discussions) in grad school, so I will write a little bit about that.

Technical difficultiesTeachers face a learning curve when moving from a classroom environment to an online environment. On one hand, there is new software to learn, which can create glitches for even the savviest professor. Course management software is idiosyncratic, and teachers may need to become familiar with other software programs (like Camtasia for recording lectures) in addition to course management software like Blackboard or Moodle.

On the other hand, techniques that work in the classroom don’t always transfer well to an online environment, and it can be trial-and-error to discover what types of assignments work well online. The first semester or two can be rough as professors troubleshoot new tools and figure out what works and what doesn’t; students can help by recognizing the learning curve teachers face (many put in extraordinary amounts of extra time), and by doing their best to stay with the course schedule, even if there aren’t physical meetings to attend.

Synchronous or asynchronous? Online courses may be synchronous – everyone “present” at the same time – or asynchronous, where the professor posts a lecture and the students can watch it whenever is convenient (usually within a specified time frame). Asynchronous courses give students flexibility and control over not just where they learn (at home instead of in a classroom, for example), but when (so night owls and early birds are both happy).

Communication: If the students don’t see the professor on a regular basis in the classroom, they must have some way to communicate. Professors should establish communication guidelines/ground rules at the outset of the class, letting students know when they will be available and how they can be reached. I have taken classes with professors who would respond to an e-mail in minutes; professors who were on Skype and Gchat and Twitter; professors who held traditional office hours and could be reached by phone.

Communication is of paramount importance for several reasons: there may be a technological glitch that the teacher is unaware of (inaudible audio file, broken link); students might need clarification on assignment instructions; students will want feedback on their work. Ideally, there will be at least two channels of communication – and professors should remember that not every student is on facebook or wants to communicate that way.

Discussion boards: Online discussion boards are now part of many traditional classes as well as online ones. As a student, I came to appreciate discussion boards for a few reasons. The act of writing is more considered than the act of speaking; writing responses to prompts reinforced my own learning and increased my grasp of the material. Reading others’ comments was valuable as well, because written comments were more thoughtful and clear than spoken ones – people weren’t just saying the first thing that came to mind, as they do in a classroom. The interaction between students on the discussion board was impressive as well: people responded to each other’s posts and sometimes cited outside sources, providing links to extra materials. In a “blended” class, discussions carried over from the online forum into the classroom.


In many ways, my experience with online learning is vastly different from that of students who take MOOCs. I was in classes with 20-30 other students, and we received as much feedback on our work as we would have in a traditional classroom setting. But there are similarities too: as with most education, the student is at least partially accountable for his or her own learning, and to a great degree you get out of it what you put into it. If you do the reading, attend (or listen to) the lectures, and participate in discussions (in person or online), you’ll learn. Good teachers will find ways to adapt what works in the classroom to what works online. The success of MOOCs so far (and of TED talks) prove that there is an untapped desire to learn in many people, and that’s something to celebrate and encourage.

Edited to add: A.J. Jacobs, who I can’t help but think of as a stuntman of the author world (experimenting with certain ways of life and then writing about them, e.g. The Year of Living Biblically), has written a piece for the Times opinion pages called “Two Cheers for Web U!” Despite the enthusiastic title, he points out a few drawbacks to MOOCs, and predicts that, while they offer benefits to some, they won’t ever replace brick-and-mortar colleges. –4/21/13

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