Science and the MOOC

By Su Wild-River

This post was first published at http://nofunnybusiness.net/2013/12/science-and-the-mooc/

Have you heard of the new Massive On-line Open Courses that are both exciting and terrifying universities around the world? Heralded as a fundamental challenge to the university education system, these courses are being offered free by some of the world’s best teachers from leading universities.

Yes that’s right – you can get a certificate from Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford and hundreds of other universities without paying a cent or leaving your desk.

MOOCs are available to anyone with an email address and password. Some courses offer a verification option with a small fee and an identity check each time you submit work. I took a verified ‘Signature Track’ course with Coursera, registering by using my computer’s camera to photograph my driver’s licence, my face, and by typing a short phrase. Then each time I submitted work, I again photographed my face and typed the same phrase to verify it was still me. The programming was excellent, so this was all very simple and quick.

Coursera is the world’s biggest MOOC provider. EdX is another big, high-profile MOOC with many prestigious partner universities. Udacity is also noteworthy, since it first popularised MOOCs. The graphs here show the recent growth for these three. Other MOOC providers are also on the rise, including CourseSites, Open2Study, Stanford Online, and Allversity.

I’m interested in this pedagogical revolution, and so I completed four MOOCs from four universities and three providers during the last three months. These included:

  • Networked Life, University of Pennsylvania, Coursera.
  • What a Plant Knows, Tel Aviv University, Signature Track, Coursera.
  • Our Energetic Earth, University of Toronto, EdEx.
  • Charles Darwin, Evolution and Tropical Australia, Charles Darwin University, CourseSites.

Overall I learned that studying MOOCs is fun. They are berries of education. Exciting, enticing and moreish with quick rewards and no calories.

Most course structures are simple, and forums suggest we like it that way. A generic pattern is three 10-minute lectures, 10-question tests, and readings, each week over the 4-12 week life of the course. Sometimes there are ‘peer reviewed’ assignments, where you mark others’ work and they mark yours. Sometimes there are final exams, and some MOOCs have webinars.

Classes are obviously much bigger, but drop-outs also proportionally higher than in traditional courses. About 10% of the 32,000 enrolled in one I took received a final certificate, and 2% met the 95% distinction level.

Can you learn science this way? The big MOOC providers quote research showing that on-line learning methods are about as good as face-to-face. I’ve been impressed with the quality of science teaching which has covered research methods, failed and successful experiments, flawed and quality hypotheses, and truly significant discoveries. We were asked to do simple, safe experiments and students discussed their results in the forums. I’d say yes – science can be learned through MOOCs.

Many students take MOOCs for the lifelong learning. I also like the certificate even though on the non-verified option the disclaimer is longer than the acknowledgement. They don’t affirm that I was enrolled, confer a grade, credit or degree, and don’t claim to know who I am. The verified version is far more confident that I am who I claim to be.

And finally, what do MOOCs mean for traditional university education? I think MOOCs can be powerful advertisements for universities, showcasing great teachers and courses. I think they can have a role in filtering students into the degrees that best match their interests. And MOOCs simply don’t offer small-class interactions that for many alumni seem to lead to life-long friendships and close professional networks. But MOOCs do seem like a threat to boring lectures and restrictive pedagogical options. And as MOOC providers continue expanding, and begin offering degrees, universities will need to move quickly and creatively or they may well lose their dominance in higher education.

Curious? Check out the offerings and have a go. It turns out I love MOOCs and I continue to enrol. Tell me what you are taking and I’ll look for you in the forums.

Comparing Providers

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