After months of keeping an eye on MOOCs from afar, I have taken the plunge and signed up for a Coursera class—A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior, taught by Duke professor and TED speaker Dan Ariely. The course was suggested by my wonderful mother (who is also taking the class), and now in the second week of classes I’ve already almost missed a deadline for an assignment and am way behind on required reading—in other words, it’s just like being back in college!
Given all of the various MOOC-related things we talk about here at Technapex, I’m as interested in the process of online learning as I am in the class material. We’ve speculated a great deal about MOOCs and their potential to revolutionize education, but actually taking one is a good opportunity to test our conjectures (and by our, I mean my). I have supported the expansion of MOOCs without any first hand experiences to back up my sentiments, so this time I figured I’d put my figurative money where my mouth is
So what is my first reaction to taking a lecture course online? So far, so good. The class is interesting and the professor explains things well (which certainly helps), but more than that, the online learning model is perfect for pursuing academic interests in a guided yet low-pressure environment. Watching lectures designed to be consumed in modular fashion, at times when it is convenient, is perfect for casual students of a subject to study a broad field and find areas of interest.
However, I’m already much more skeptical about the ability of MOOCs to replace large or oversubscribed lecture classes entirely, or teach more academically rigorous subjects. The benefits online courses gain from technology (re-watching lecture videos, seamless integration of interactive multimedia, being able to attend class when it is convenient, etc.) are offset by the problems of lack of in-person feedback from professors or teaching assistants. The most notable failure of the online classroom structure so far has been the awkward handling of questions. While asking questions during an in-person lecture is difficult or impractical, professors are available after the lecture or for office hours. Online education, on the other hand, adds an email barrier to any communication with a professor, making it hard to get even the most basic questions answered in a timely manner. Furthermore, an in-person lecturer may benefit from reading the room to get a sense of comprehension or engagement; there is no feedback for a professor talking into a camera.
This exact situation happened to me in the first week of classes. The professor explained a concept about how the environment impacts our way of thinking and acting, and then applied that example in an entirely unexpected and seemingly contradictory way. I didn’t get it. Neither, it turned out later, did my mom. Neither of us had a way to get the question answered nor otherwise receive individual attention—I had to dig through forum posts about the lecture to find someone who had raised the same question as I did to get an answer.
While proponents may argue that this democratized, forum-based problem solving is an acceptable trade-off for courses being available to everyone (for free, no less), it certainly detracts from the learning process. For subjects that are far more complex than a basic introductory behavioral economics course, there is no substitute for in-person teaching, either by a professor or in a teaching assistant-led section. When I was in college, I never particularly enjoyed having a mandatory section for lecture classes because teaching assistants frequently assigned work that felt contrived or or unnecessary (for example, why do I need to write a one page summary of the reading if I’ve already done the reading?). But as much as I did not enjoy reading summaries, sections provided a platform to answer exactly those questions that have tripped me up in online class so far: the broad concept is clear, but the application or specifics of a topic don’t seem to make any sense.
As a platform, Coursera offers a very compelling way of learning online. But while learning online is very similar to learning in person, they are decidedly different experiences. It’s like the difference between real fruit and artificial fruit flavors: cherry flavor tastes roughly like one would expect artificial cherry flavor to taste like, but you would never confuse it for the real thing. And while each serves a purpose –and some may argue that the artificial flavor tastes better — there’s no substitute for a big bowl of in-person classes on a hot summer day. I mean, cherries in a comprehensive college education.
You know what I mean.