The rise of the MOOC

Thanks to Brigid Mullane for her review of MOOCs.

MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses, are free courses from major universities around the world, available on the internet through platforms such as Coursera, Udacity and edX.

The first one I heard about was Coursera, and after reviewing its numerous offerings, I started in January this year with a course called Principles of Economics for Scientists from California Institute of Technology.  The title caught my attention because so many science issues have to be understood as economic issues as well, for example, climate change or the use of GMOs in crops.

I found that the course was not about the interaction of science and economics; the science tag related to the fact that students were expected to understand basic calculus to do the course, and many scientists would have this background.  The course dealt with economics using mathematical models, rather than in the descriptive way typical of many introductory economics courses.  Assignments were submitted weekly, and machine-marked.  The turnaround was immediate, with a grade, and an outline of how to solve each problem.  This was a great way to learn.

A feature of the course was an online trading game to help students understand the process of supply and demand in a market.  Unfortunately the system crashed on the first attempt, and so the game had to be abandoned as a component of the course assessment.  However, later in the course, after some repairs, the game was run again as an optional exercise.  This worked mechanically, but the market collapsed because some virtual banksters were going into virtual overdraft, and paying crazy prices for tokens.

Next, having seen how easily markets can be destroyed, I started to think about food security, and signed up in July for the course Sustainability of Food Systems, from the University of Minnesota.  It covers topics of interest to me such as food choices, industrial food production and the effects of national agricultural policies.  The assignments include open-book quizzes on reading assignments, so it would be difficult not to get full marks.  The other assignments involve various projects which are to be reported as forum posts, and we are also asked to comment on, or uptick the contributions of our fellow students.

Comparing the two courses, I’d rate the economics course higher.  Despite that trading game problem, and a few other bugs, it was a great opportunity to brush up on economics, confirm that I could still do some calculus, and hear from students around the world on the course forum.  The food course seems to be pitched more at high-school than university level.  This might have something to do with the need for assignments to be machine-marked for a massive student body, which precludes giving students the more demanding assignments that might be part of a regular course.

Students do not receive credit from the teaching institutions, but for most courses a Statement of Accomplishment is awarded to those who complete the requirements.  For a better class of certificate, Coursera students can join a program called Signature Track.  For this the students are asked to create profiles by recording their typing patterns and taking webcam photos of themselves and their ID documents.  Then they have to use a webcam while submitting assignments so that the system can confirm their identity, as well as their typing patterns.

This all seems very cumbersome and Big-Brotherish, and does not give university credit, but it does allow you to refer people to a website to confirm your course results.  The cost of this varies by course, and was USD29 to USD49 on a few I checked.  I noticed that a couple of these were discounted from a previous higher cost, so perhaps this is not a popular program.

On the question of actual course credit, a survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education in February 2013, found that 72% of professors teaching online courses did not believe that students should get formal credit from their institutions.

So, it will take a while for universities to work out how MOOCs might be integrated into higher education.  Meanwhile, why not sign up for a free course and learn something new?