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MOOCs vs independent learning

I’ve flirted with MOOCs a couple times, mostly through Coursera, and haven’t gotten too far. Mostly the issue has been one of time–I get behind, and then the course ends, and the material gets taken down. It’s a bummer–there was a data analysis course I really wanted to finish–but the times I’ve tried, I’ve been forced to realize that I’m just not as committed to the class as I might hope.

This New Yorker article on MOOCs, from last May, finally made it to the top of my stack of reading material, and touches on my experience. It talks about some of the appeal of MOOCs, giving everyone with an internet connection access to courses taught by faculty at elite institutions–certainly the description tempted me to wonder if my schedule could accommodate the course on the hero in Ancient Greece–but also some of the associated concerns, including their low completion rates (although that may not be such a big issue), and the fear that widespread availability of MOOCs would gradually push universities to adopt the model as a way not of expanding horizons but of reducing faculty costs.

What the New Yorker article doesn’t address, really, is what forcing everyone to stay on the same schedule adds to the educational experience. It makes sense for colleges that want to offer credit for MOOCs, because you need to have so many credits a semester to be a full-time student for financial aid purposes. And maybe having a big cohort lets you have a more active online discussion. But otherwise, it seems like it encourages the very drop-outs over which that has been so much handwringing.

Contrast this to the Khan Academy model, which focuses on getting to mastery of a topic before moving on. Okay, for math it may be more important to not skip around than in some other subjects. But even in the humanities, removing the time pressure might allow for exploring certain topics more deeply, rather than skimming superficially through the readings in order to stay on schedule.

The downside, of course, is that you have to make time. I did a couple years of high school math as a correspondence course and moved…slowly. But you could change the requirement to keep up with the course to a different type of requirement–in a school context, you have to spend 30 minutes every weekday working on this material, and the computer would be able to see that you were doing it, but the actual content could go at your own pace. The time to completion might go up, but so would the percentage of students who complete the class. And that seems like a fair trade.

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