Sunday, April 14, 2013

Thoughtful Commentary on MOOCs

The Boston Globe Ideas section today has a fascinating interview by Marcella Bombardierri with local middle-age MOOC student Jonathan Haber.  Haber is a Lexington writer and entrepreneur who decided to earn a second BA, a "one year MOOC BA," to go with his 1985 traditional degree in chemistry from Weslyan. Haber says he thinks that folks are having the wrong conversations about MOOCs. The question should not be: Should we give credit for this?  Or even, Will it destroy the university?  He thinks the basic questions are, What are we learning, and Who is learning it?

Haber blogs about his experience at  He is currently working on his sophomore courses for a degree in philosophy.  Haber's first post explains his plan and begins on March 8, 2013. He tells readers  he will complete the freshman year requirements in three weeks. But this is not a fly-by-night educational scam. He took classes from Harvard, Duke, Holy Cross, U. North Caroline, Indiana, Ohio (State, I presume), and  San Jose State for those freshman course requirements.  Haber's blog makes interesting and thoughtful points about the courses and testing he experiences.  He is a very shrewd guinea pig, which is a huge help to those of us who would like more meaningful feedback about MOOCs and online courses than perhaps we get from the articles and statistics available to date.

For instance, in the Globe interview, Haber comments that the MOOCs only ask a few questions, at each module and also at the end of the course.  But he feels that they have been doing a good job of asking the right questions.  He comments on problems of discussion boards in courses with 25,000 student enrolled.  As you might imagine, the range of comments looks a lot like what you get in comments to a newspaper article.  He notes that a number of students are taking the course from overseas, and that English is not their first language, so there is sometimes that barrier to their participation at a sophisticated level.  Haber's series on testing in mid-April is really good to read.

Haber also comments on the problems of having students grade each other's work.  This is not something I had contemplated. When you have a rubric that is simple enough for everybody to follow, it reduces the assignment and grading to a fairly elementary level. It means that a student who wants to "spread their wings" really gets shot down for not following the directions to the letter.

However, the MOOCs answer some major economic challenges facing higher education right now. How do we deliver a minimum-or-better quality education experience to the growing number of people who want or need some level of higher education?  How do we do this at an affordable price point?  Haber's comment to the Globe interviewer is that MOOCs are...
... definitely going to make a big contribution to changing education.  The risk is, everyone is so excited about them now, it iwll be one of those angel/edevel things.... When in fact, they are an interesting work in progress.

The MOOC Hysteria post that decorates this post was originally designed to market EduCKA MOOCs. I found it at, a post dated July 17, 2012, and pretty entertaining, about MOOCs and the hysteria that sometimes surrounds the discussion about them.

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