MOOC Madness Reflection: A Student’s View from Inside UC Berkeley

After attending the Technapex’s MOOC Madness event last Monday, I found myself both excited about the potential MOOCs have to expand the reach of higher education, as well as slightly sore about some of the assumptions that were made about online learning.

The main presumption that irked me was the argument that the best learning takes place inside a physical classroom. I understand that the intention behind this position is that personal interaction and collaboration between students will inspire the most creativity and therefore maximize understanding; however, I have issues with the connections made between this interaction and the classroom environment, specifically within higher ed institutions. Most of the material presented in a university course does not necessitate a physical classroom, and is even observed to be the less-preferred option among students. The connection between comprehensive learning and a typical classroom environment was that presented and supported by the panel; however, my own personal experiences as a student have led to my support of a very contrary stance.

Understand that this is post is coming from my own personal experience as a third-year environmental science student very involved in the scientific side of UC Berkeley — I don’t have much of a humanities background. I will not pretend to be the be-all-end-all when it comes to the undergraduate experience, and I’m sure that there will of course be some understandable differences between my views and my humanities counterparts. While these differences are expected, they are still very important to consider when contemplating the effects of the implementation of online education. Unlike the panel’s belief (and quite possibly the belief of my liberal arts peers), from my firsthand experience it is clear that the classroom as a moldable, dynamic environment is a concept lost on the majority of STEM university courses.

I find that the majority of the time I spend in class (the time spent in lecture) is less of a wholesome and enriching environment filled with collaboration and idea-swapping and rather more a big hollow room where I sit for 50-minute

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time slots and someone shares his or her own thoughts and opinions. While this information is usually well-presented and necessary to succeed in the course, I do not feel as though there is any interaction between me and my peers during these times, much less my professor. As far as my experience in lecture is concerned, I could skip the classroom altogether and have the exact same experience if I were to watch the lecture at home in my bedroom, a choice that many students make when the option presents itself.

Many of the classes required by my major are typical general education science courses (think physics, biology, and chemistry), and are among the largest of the various classes offered at UC Berkeley, enrolling between 500 and 800 students at a time. Many of these courses are also webcast via YouTube, so in reality, only about 200 or so students will actually show up in the lecture hall. My point in making this a numbers game is to show that students are already choosing to attend classes online rather than in person. Because so many classes are webcast, students are given the choice to either attend live lectures or to wait about 12 hours until a webcast of the lecture is put online, giving them the freedom to watch the lecture at the speed and location of their choosing.

If we simply look at the number of students in attendance, the difference is clear. Students prefer to have more flexibility and watch the webcasts of lectures rather than walk onto campus to attend the lectures at their scheduled times.The lecture aspect of MOOCs is not very difficult to put together, and proves to be similar to the currently preferred method of lecturing experienced by STEM students at institutions such as UC Berkeley.

While my experiences may seem to encourage the furthering and development of online educational resources, the one in-person classroom experience I could see being very difficult to emulate online would be that of weekly discussion and lab sections. Discussion sections at UC Berkeley are usually one hour of class per week, run by GSIs (Graduate Student Instructors), and provide a smaller group environment in which students are able to ask questions directly to an instructor as well as get to know one another as they discuss course topics introduced that week.

This is the minority of class time for most students, and does not involve the instruction skills of a professor, yet accounts for most of the understanding and deep comprehension of course material. Creating this environment in an online setting is what I as a student would foresee as being the biggest challenge that MOOCs and online courses need to overcome, but is definitely not an impossible task. My discussions are the most enriching part of my university courses, and in my opinion, finding an adequate online substitute for this short (but incredibly helpful) class time would lend MOOCs much more credibility and depth of content.

I agree that students need collaboration and group interaction in order to become fully-formed thinkers; however, I still do not feel as though this is attained in the majority of my time spent in Berkeley classrooms. While the panel was correct in identifying the issue, I’m not too sure that they see how this issue is already present within higher ed institutions, much less understand the best way to resolve such a problem. While I do agree that cooperation and personal interaction are important components to comprehensive learning, I’m not entirely convinced that institutions of higher learning always take advantage of the opportunities that the physical classroom provides, as this type of dynamic collaboration is something I as a student only experience in the small amount of class time spent in discussion sections.

If MOOCs and online course providers and instructors can find a way to create discussion section environments for online students, then more power to them. Keep on innovating and creating, but be sure that the integrity of the course — as well as the depth of understanding– is not lost as classes are converted to an online format.

  • MOOC News & Reviews

    Well said. You’re getting at a little-understood part of the MOOC phenomenon. The liberal arts college experience is precious and should be cultivate and protected — and even offered more broadly — but the MOOC critics are missing the point that this experience is also quite rare. Most people in the world don’t come within a hundred miles of it, and even undergraduates at very competitive universities can’t access it much of the time. Compared to classes that are already based on impersonal lectures, MOOCs can actually be an improvement.

    In any case, the debate ought to be based on actual familiarity with online learning. It’s nice to see a serious commentary for once that comes from someone has taken a MOOC.

    Robert McGuire
    Editor, MOOC News and Reviews

    • kponiatowski

      Thanks for your input, I really appreciate the positive feedback!

  • John

    As a college graduate that has taken several MOOC classes from the big three providers including humanities courses, I agree with your conclusions. The bottom line for me is the passion that is found in most MOOC classes both with the professors and the students. This is a missing ingredient in most brick and mortar classes but probably the most important for real learning to occur.

    • kponiatowski

      Glad we share similar opinions, thanks for reaching out!

  • Eli

    I think there are several reasons lectures are valuable in creating an educated individual, but I agree with you that it is not at all obvious why.

    For example, I think that I learned to pay attention due to lectures – this ability to focus and listen for extended periods of time has been one of the greatest assets in my life. I think I developed this skill because I had to (lectures are fleeting events), and because I was surrounded by live humans (students and instructor) which held me accountable and engaged. Classrooms are also a relatively distraction free refuge, and these days it is really hard to escape the temptations of technology.

    I also feel that the human and fleeting nature of lectures made them have value to me, and that value helped me to care about and value the material, and therefore absorb it. Each lecture is like a performance just for the students present in the classroom on that particular day, and we are free to engage the professors with our questions. When your professors are brilliant experts like professors at UC Berkeley, one should take full advantage!

    I also feel that there is a huge amount of nonverbal communication that goes on in the classroom that fosters learning, and that attendance in lectures is highly correlated to successful students. Perhaps the students skipping class are the same students who are failing, and we should not follow their preferences.

    I think going to class physically, seeing fellow students, having lunch,
    really engaged me in my education. I became immersed in the culture of education. And you
    know what? I loved it.

    I haven’t even mentioned the obvious benefits of lectures, like the
    positive impact of the culture of the classroom, the discussions,
    collaborations and all of that stuff.

    I could go on and on – but I think you get my point. Lectures have value, but that value is very difficult to recognize and quantify, and lectures are definitely not the only part of education. College is largely what you make of it. If you treat it as no better than an online course, it might end up being one of the biggest regrets of your life (especially when you need a letter of recommendation (;

    Good luck!

    • kponiatowski

      I definitely agree with you! I don’t want to come across as anti-classroom (or even anti-social), however, while these “nonverbal” benefits reside in the classroom environment, the verbal benefits that I feel should be present in lectures as well are simply not there.

      Lectures are still very valuable academic experiences, but if we look at the trend present within UC Berkeley, students in STEM courses are already showing preference toward the MOOC platform of online lecturing.

      There is something to be said for the value of the “fleeting lecture”, however, I believe that there is also an argument to be made for the accessibility of online lecturing, as students are able to go back and double-check material or clarify their notes as they review for exams.

      You make very good points, and this is a very complex issue that our education system faces. Thank you so much for your feedback, I really appreciate you taking the time to read my post and then share your opinions with me!

  • wd

    [Many of the classes . . . offered at UC Berkeley, enrolling between 500 and 800 students at a time . . . are also webcast via YouTube.]

    You observe that the “in the flesh lectures” have no added value compared to webcasts. I think you are right, webcast can do the same thing as a “real” lecture.

    However I think that is important to distinguish a webcast (a lecture capture) from delivery by MOOC; MOOCs can do more than webcasts (hence MOOCs can do more than “real” lectures).

    In Coursera type MOOCs,

    - lectures are segmented in convenient 10 minute video clips

    - the professor has total control of what the students sees in the clip (can focus the attention of the student).

    - during each 10 minute video clip the professor can focus the attention of the student further by asking MC questions at the appropriate time.

    - the clips can be recorded in an informal setting (almost simulating a one to one conversation).

    - It is easy to add a formative MC test at the end of a series of clips

    If these possibilities are used in the right way the MOOC learning is far more effective than a “real” lecture.

    • kponiatowski

      You’re right, these are all great details to note about MOOC lecturing. Thanks for your feedback, I really appreciate it!