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What is a MOOC? (and where do I sign up!)

In a word, a MOOC is a free online class you can take at a University.  According to the Washington Post, it is the latest buzzword coming out of higher education.   MOOC is an acronym for “Massive Open Online Course.” It is an online class that anyone (at least anyone with access to the internet) can attend for free. It means a student in Bangladesh (or rural PA or downtown LA) can attend online the lectures, download and complete classroom activities, and enter into discussion groups to master the equivalent of a semester long three credit course in areas as diverse as programming, global health, creativity, and music theory.

A breakthrough in MOOCs happened with the course taught by Stanford professors Sebastian Thrum and Peter Norvig in the fall of 2011 on Artificial Intelligence. The enrollment burgeoned to 160,000 students (I’ll admit I was one of the 160,000 and did little more than view the lectures).  The number of MOOCs available through major Universities (in just 2 years) exceeds several thousand.

My son’s physics teacher (at online Commonwealth Connections Academy) posted and referred to lectures from the Udacity Lectures on the Introduction to Physics which my son raved about and rewatched (yes, rewatched) with curiousity – following links for more information. I recently completed a type of MOOC through the Computer Science Student Network and CMU Robotics Academy. I received my certification (Woot!) by successfully completing the programming activities and final exam in RobotC for Mindstorms.

How do I look for a class?

I refer you to four major portals out there right now – each one partnering with different Universities (Stanford, Harvard, University of Penn, etc.): Udacity, Coursera, P2PU, and edX. The links take you directly to their course catalogs.  I cannot emphasize enough the surprise and delight you will feel browsing.  Like a kid in a candy store! I’ll also mention that these portals are not the only ones.  This is, after all, a brand new field with lots of experiments happening.

Why do I look for a class?

If you are a teacher, particularly in high school or college, check out what others in your field are teaching. If their material is better that your lectures, better than your activities, use it in your classroom and let the MOOC make room for time spent listening and building off of your student’s questions.  Be prepared to reject the lectures as well. Peter Hadreas, professor and Philosophy Department Chair at San Jose State University, felt the video of a Harvard Ivy League professor’s lecture to his affluent class would be insulting to his diverse state university students. My point is, watch them yourself.

If you are an adult, any adult, recognize the need for lifelong learning and dive into a topic you want to become passionate about. Let me know what you take and what your experiences are!

If you are a teen, look to supplement your classroom experiences by looking for the same class topics and browsing a few.  If you are looking for a MOOC on a subject your school does not offer (for example, Introduction to Python Programming), look for one that has some type of badge or certification available. In some cases, the certification course online is more robust and offers a teacher who has more experience than your classroom or local online teacher.

What can I expect?

Enroll in a MOOC and you can expect a lot of work, if you are willing to do it.  And if you aren’t willing to work hard, if you can get over the ‘guilt’ of not trying for the “A,” if you can be comfortable not becoming a master of the material, if you are willing to be humble to engage in conversation as the novice (first learning the etiquette of discussion boards), you can expect whole new worlds of understanding and vision with no more effort than tuning into your favorite TV show or TED Talk.

Only 7% to 9% of people who enroll, finish the course.   The lectures online are the tip of the iceberg. Keith Devlin, a Stanford Mathematician, describes “a lot of learning going on, but it wasn’t in the lectures. “Even if I’d been able to see each student watching the lecture, I would not have seen much learning going on, if any. Rather, the learning I saw was on the discussion forums, primarily the ones focused on the assignments I gave out after each lecture.”   The course assignments and the forum discussions are the heart of the course.

The RobotC programming course required me to create and test code for Robot Virtual Worlds with clear goals, achievement badges, and hours of frustrating failures that reinforced and built the learning competencies of the course. When frustration loomed, I went out to the forums for help. I am a novice programmer and felt intimidated amidst the many others with programming background learning a new language. I never felt lost in their wake (thanks to a great teacher and forum facilitators). I was always lifted me up to make it through at my own speed.

I have audited other courses , for example MIT Media Lab’s Mitch Resnick’s course Learning Creative Learning. I resorted to only watching the videos and not downloading and reading the assignments.  His primary activity tool, Scratch Programming, I already use with students. I did attempt new skills that were mentioned and saved them for later classroom reminders. The format of the MOOC let me take away what I needed in the moment, allows me a chance to revisit to get more, but also allowed a diverse set of learners (kindergarten teachers to neuroscientists) a chance to network, share ideas, and go deeper into the material than most of my face to face college classrooms. It was the forums and discussion boards where real ‘learning’ was taking place.

Some Open Online Classrooms allow for certification, credit, or a Mozilla badge. Some require you to go to campus to take the test. Others have a project based assessment you complete. Several charge a nominal ‘tuition fee’ for testing and certification.

What does this mean for higher education?

Clay Shirky, associate professor at NYU, compared the people running colleges today to music industry executives in the age of Napster and sees MOOCs as a lightning strike on a rotten tree of education.

I am unconvinced that higher education needs burned to the ground. I recognize my attitude is biased. I teach at Duquesne, a private college with a small (compared to state and public institutions of higher learning) student body. I see the value in knowing my student’s names, being amazed at their progress, insight of thought, being able to motivate them with adapted lessons and assignments that tap into their unique passions and experiences, and recruit them to help my full time colleagues push the boundaries of scholarly knowledge to create, publish, and birth new ideas and insight that help build a civilization of knowledge and compassion.

Additionally, I have watched my child , now 15, both thrive and struggle in six years of online learning.  It can be great, individualized, empowering, and freeing (he would never have thrived to this extent in a brick and mortar). It can also be, at times, isolating, poorly delivered, inadequately researched and badly facilitated.  (Hmmm, just like any school classroom). Great teachers are needed in all the venues: a MOOC, an online distance learning environment, a college classroom, or a media lab experience. May I strive to be great.

I am also a rebel who likes life outside the box, yet recognizes without a hierarchy that sets and holds high standards, environments and people in them tend to fall to the lowest common denominator. Even Wikipedia, with all its imperfections yet remarkable success, has at its head a policing body of volunteer editors that are committed to ‘standards’ of verifiability, neutrality, and a respect for living people. The authority of academic standards is one, though tarnished, needed as a pillar in the ongoing quest and interpretation of human knowledge. Google and Wikipedia are still but a drop in the bucket of human knowledge, and higher institutions of learning are uniquely situated to provide the access, collaborative frameworks, and funding reciprocals for ongoing research and scholarship.

Does my child still need to pay for college?

I don’t know your child, you do.  You know them more (at least I hope you do) than any teacher, guidance counselor, or admission advisor.  Furthermore, no one, except a specific mentor at the particular company where your child wants to work, is going to help them figure out what it is that they need to learn to go where they want to go. Many college graduates are still not qualified for the jobs that are out there. Many students continue to graduate with no real idea what their degree prepares them for (and grow depressed when their imagined ideas are blown away like so much smoke). Preparing for higher education means that you and your child not only visiting college campuses, but also explore the economic reality that awaits them on graduation (see STEM data). Some questions to consider:

  • Are they self-motivated? 7% to 9% of people who enroll finish a MOOC (and just enrolling is a leap into the “I Want to Learn More” mindset). Is your child capable of being that kind of self-monitored learner?  A teacher of a MOOC (or a large classroom setting) is typically not going to ask them to stay after class and ask why they are falling behind (nor is every college teacher, but this one tries to).
  • Do they have a career of choice, or are they still searching?  Consider a summer in a volunteer internship with a company or institution they think they want to work for. Work with career counseling agency such as Virtual Job Shadow or through the National Career Development Association (and double check industry projections yourself).  This is much cheaper (and, I believe, opens more doors) than an undeclared liberal arts major.
  • Have they flourished in a brick and mortar school?  Many of the skills needed to flourish in the one environment transfer to a brick and mortar college. Do they voluntarily join groups and willingly serve as a leader?  Are they willing to make the sacrifices necessary to play on a sports team? Can they get themselves to class and complete assignments on time?  Do they know how to ask for help when they need it?  Do they have the social skills to gather themselves into a group of friends that study and game together? Do they have enough resilience and confidence in themselves and their future to avoid at risk behaviors?

Dale Stephens, founder of , authored Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will. He describes the requirements of becoming a hackademic: curiosity, confidence, and grit. What I find of value is his ownership in the process of selecting the course, selecting the teacher, and plotting the path. What I fear my child would miss is a (for example, biochemistry) course that was forced into his schedule by degree requirements created with foresight and collaborative expertise of a well-trained faculty, a course that opens his eyes to a field he never considered. I fear my daughter would never experience collaborating in a core course with students not in her degree field and getting a glimpse of other paths to follow.  I fear I would have never had that one on one meeting with a professor in his office to discuss a paper where he told me I should submit it for publication and consider a life as a writer and academic.

Whatever choice you make for this coming semester; brick and mortar, online distance learning, a blended environment, or a MOOC, may you and your child choose to be lifelong learners and discover great teachers, mentors and coaches.

For more tools for 21st century parenting, you can follow me on Facebook and Twitter . And here are some other articles you might enjoy:

Mitchel Resnick: Sowing the Seeds for a More Creative Society

Improv Skills: On the Path to a Life’s Vision

Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World

A Worthy Quest: Chip Conley’s “Peak” and A Teenager’s Pyramid of Needs




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