How MOOCs are Changing My Life

In the interest of getting back to my purported purpose for starting this blog (that is, to get some brain exercise), I’m going to start posting some of the interesting stuff I’m learning — because despite my silence on here, I’ve actually been learning a lot. And I kind of want to share it.

In March of 2012, I read this article in Wired magazine and immediately knew it would impact my life:


Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig in the basement of Thrun’s guesthouse, where they record class videos.
Photo: Sam Comen

Quick summary: two Stanford professors decided to try an experiment. In the fall of 2011, they put their graduate course, an introduction to Artificial Intelligence, online.

Now, MIT has been putting courses online for about a decade as part of their Open Courseware initiative. It’s been an incredible resource; many, if not most, of MIT’s classes have been available to view (for no credit) after-the-fact to anyone who’s interested. Some have a syllabus attached, some have a list of readings and homework that had been assigned, some have notes, and most (all?) have video of the classroom lectures. Some have all of the above. But because they are all posted after-the-fact, there is no interaction between teacher and online student and no deadlines, and therefore (for me) little motivation to finish. Also, the production quality isn’t that great — but it’s free, so I have no right to complain. I’ve surfed casually over there off-and-on for years without finishing a class.

The aforementioned Stanford professors tried something new: they put their class online as it was happening, and opened enrollment to not only the (paying) graduate students in the computer science department at Stanford, but for free to anyone else, anywhere in the world, who had time, interest, and an internet connection. Only the Stanford students would get credit for the class, but everyone else would get the same information and assignments at the same time. They would have access to forums where students could discuss the class and collaborate on projects. And those who finished the class with a passing grade would get a “Statement of Accomplishment,” a paper that confers no Stanford credit, but does provide eternal bragging rights.

They expected a few hundred people to sign up. Maybe 2,000, tops. Within weeks, word of the class had gone viral, and 160,000 students had signed up to take it — two-thirds of them from outside the United States. Only 23,000 finished the course. That’s a crazy number — because while 200 Stanford students were officially enrolled in the class, more than 100 times that many people finished it.

This was the very first MOOC — Massive Open Online Course. The Wired article promised that Stanford would open a website called that would have 14 courses available (all in the computer science department) by the end of 2012.

I’m not a computer science gal. I’d like to be, but it’s a foreign language that I have a lot of trouble wrapping my brain around. Still, I checked up on Coursera periodically, waiting to see what was next. I could feel something big was going to happen. I’d already been playing around with Khan Academy (an unrelated, but very valuable site) where Salman Khan has made math very approachable in brief, free online talks followed by a few math problems to check your understanding. I could tell Stanford was going to take things to yet another level with Coursera.

At first there were a handful of other universities partnering with Stanford. Then they got more universities to partner with them. As of December 2013 there are 107 universities providing classes on Coursera. Most are in the US, but Mexico, Canada, Europe, and Asia are all represented. At the end of 2012, there were a couple of classes I wanted to take. Now there are 552 courses available, and I want to take more than I can possibly finish.

Why is this cool? Why is it life-changing? Because I’m doing these things in real time and I’m finishing classes. I watch lectures, I do homework, I take tests, I write essays, I talk on the forums with other students, and I have a deadline to get it all done if I want a Statement of Accomplishment. (I don’t care that it’s only for bragging rights.) I get to go back to college for free, and I can take as many classes as I want. So far this year I’ve earned four Statements of Accomplishment on Coursera: Introduction to Microeconomics (UC-Irvine), Fantasy and Science Fiction Literature (U of Michigan), The Social Context of Mental Health and Illness (U of Toronto), and Calvin – The History and Reception of the Reformation (U of Geneva). That last one was conducted in French, but had English subtitles.

MIT and some other universities started their own competitor site, It has fewer partner universities and has a less-intuitive interface than Coursera, but the classes I’ve taken on there have been consistently good. I earned my one 2013 Statement of Accomplishment on EdX over the summer — Greek Heroes (Harvard), a class that explored ancient Greek literature in the context of the culture in which it was written. Nostimo!

This fall I had the confidence to take a paid course through Stanford Extension online that provides credit and a transcript, a class on creative writing that focused on character development. We only had 17 students, so it was a big difference from a MOOC. I got a lot of instructor feedback and a lot of interaction with my fellow students. It was a great experience, and I’ll take another class in the future. I’m not stopping my MOOCs, though.

At Coursera and EdX, you can sign up for as many courses as you want, and there’s no penalty for not finishing. I’m currently taking World History Since 1300 (Princeton), Intro to Astronomy (Duke), Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World (U of Copenhagen), Intro to Creating Android Apps (U of Illinois), History of China (Harvard), and have another dozen or so starting up in the next month or two. I don’t know if I’ll finish any, but it doesn’t matter. I’m still learning whenever I have free time.

So: for 2013 I finished the equivalent of 18 hours of college work and got credit for 3 at a total cost of less than a thousand dollars. I think it’s great. It’s a Godsend to have access to these incredible minds online and to have that access almost entirely for free. It’s incredible to get to interact with people from all over the world and learn how various issues impact them in their own communities. I’m learning at what feels like an exponential rate.

Now you know some of what I’ve been doing in 2013. As I go forward on this blog, I’ll drop interesting tidbits of information that I’m inspired to share. It’s going to be fun.

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5 replies

  1. This is one of the most interesting experiences I have read about in a long while. Wow!! You never cease to amaze me.

  2. Thanks, Natalie!

  3. Every college – EVERY college – is currently facing the issue of online education. Put simply, to quote from Tennessee Williams, “We are all sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life.” The brick-and-mortar of a school is its skin; it limits the number of students that the college can enroll. Online education is a way to try to grow beyond that, to reach out beyond a school’s walls to students it would normally not be able to reach. As such, all colleges are having to determine how it will handle online education.

    The question of online education brings up a second question. What is the role of the educator within an online course? Believe it or not, colleges thought back in the 1970s that video would take the place of the traditional classroom. What was eventually discovered was that an educator was still needed for cases where personalized education was needed.

    This, oddly enough, turns the question back to the student. How much personalized education do you need? Some need a lot of guidance; others, far less. A course with 17 people in it allows for personalized feedback; a course with 17,000 people, not so much.

    To fill in the gap, most large-scale MOOCs work with groups at some level, to provide feedback. Groupwork is becoming far more popular within classrooms, both standard and online, because it allows for feedback from a peer source without using the point of view of the instructor. To put it very simply, I have my way of viewing the topics I teach. That is not necessarily the best way for everyone to view that topic. By getting students together to share their views, they oftentimes are able to teach each other far more effectively than if they just listened to the instructor.

    Overall, I think MOOCs have a good future within education. Put simply, it’s beautifully cost-effective in an industry that is coming under increased criticism for the costs involved. That said, I think the long-term success of MOOCs will depend on if college students receive instruction in how to be more self-reliant in their studies, so that they can better utilize the MOOC instructional model. Colleges have gotten better in the past couple of decades at counseling for freshman and incoming students, to help them acclimatize to college life; a similar acclimatization is likely required to achieve success within the MOOC environment.

    • I think we’re entering a period of the most radical change in the history of education, and we’re just at the beginning. I don’t believe online education will supplant education at physical colleges (for just one example, we’ll still need science labs), but it will become an increasingly important supplement. The professors of the Stanford AI class that Wired cited said that their enrolled, physical, graduate students had better grades than previous cohorts — and they believed it was their ability to pause and re-watch lectures, as well as to interact with other students online, that accounted for the increased grades (and learning, too, I would hope).

      MOOCs do have their disadvantages in the lack of individualized instruction, but if I’m being honest I can say the same for any of the large college classes I took. That’s not to say that I would rather have gone to school online. Class time is only one component of the college experience. My kids will be going to a traditional university to get the all-around education that college provides.

      One interesting thing I’ve encountered for the first time in MOOCs is peer grading. I understand that it’s becoming common on college campuses, but MOOCs gave me my first experience with it. In real-world English classes I could discount a single professor’s opinion, but in online classes where I receive feedback on every essay from five or more people, it’s quickly apparent when more than one person says the same thing that I’ve got a specific problem with my writing. I really like getting that feedback. I wouldn’t like having a “real” grade come from it, however, because I can see how peer grading could quickly be abused in a college environment. For that reason, I’d still want a professor to be the one giving out grades.

      Maybe I ought to do a whole other post on this topic, because I could keep thinking aloud on it for quite a while. For now I’ll just say that I’m glad I had the chance to go to a traditional university when I did and I’m glad that I have the chance to try out MOOCs now. I neither want nor expect them to supplant the traditional university experience, but I love that they offer a free, no-consequence chance to try out hundreds of different courses. I wish I had had that opportunity in the ’90s.

      • And P.S. — you made a lot of interesting points, MBMG. Acclimatizing students to succeed in MOOCs is one I’ll mull over. I know I would not have been a successful online student at 18 or 20 or 22. I just didn’t have the maturity then to do the work without someone standing over my shoulder. :)

        One of the attractions of MOOCs for me is the lack of financial consequences for not finishing them. I’m seizing the day on taking as many classes as I can right now because I have a feeling that this free ride won’t last forever.

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