A.J. Jacobs Rates MOOCs!

Dear Commons Community,

A.J. Jacobs, editor at large at Esquire magazine and author of four New York Times bestsellers, enrolled in eleven MOOC courses in the past year and provides his impressions in an op-ed piece.  He sets the stage by commenting:

“MOOC boosters tend to speak of these global online classes as if they are the greatest educational advancement since the Athenian agora, highlighting their potential to lift millions of people out of poverty. Skeptics — including the blogger and University of California, Berkeley, doctoral student Aaron Bady — worry that MOOCs will offer a watered-down education, give politicians an excuse to gut state school budgets, and harm less prestigious colleges and universities.

To see for myself, I signed up for 11 courses. The bulk were on Coursera, which was founded in 2011 by two computer science professors at Stanford and financed by John Doerr, the famed Silicon Valley venture capitalist, among others — but I also dabbled with courses sponsored by edX and Udacity. Here, my report card on the current state of MOOCs.”

His initial reactions were:

“I learned many fascinating things while taking a series of free online college courses over the last few months. In my history class, I learned there was a Japanese political plot to assassinate Charlie Chaplin in 1932. In my genetics class, I learned that the ability to wiggle our ears is a holdover from animal ancestors who could shift the direction of their hearing organs.

But the first thing I learned? When it comes to Massive Open Online Courses, like those offered by Coursera, Udacity and edX, you can forget about the Socratic method.

The professor is, in most cases, out of students’ reach, only slightly more accessible than the pope or Thomas Pynchon. Several of my Coursera courses begin by warning students not to e-mail the professor. We are told not to “friend” the professor on Facebook. If you happen to see the professor on the street, avoid all eye contact (well, that last one is more implied than stated). There are, after all, often tens of thousands of students and just one top instructor.

Perhaps my modern history professor, Philip D. Zelikow, of the University of Virginia, put it best in his course introduction, explaining that his class would be a series of “conversations in which we’re going to talk about this course one to one” — except that one side (the student’s) doesn’t “get to talk back directly.” I’m not sure this fits the traditional definition of a conversation.

On the other hand, how can I really complain? I’m getting Ivy League (or Ivy League equivalent) wisdom free. Anyone can, whether you live in South Dakota or Senegal, whether it’s noon or 5 a.m., whether you’re broke or a billionaire. Professors from Harvard, M.I.T. and dozens of other schools prerecord their lectures; you watch them online and take quizzes at your leisure.”

He rated his overall MOOC experiences as a “B”:

Am I glad I spent a semester attending MOOCs? Yes. Granted, my retention rate was low, and I can’t think of any huge practical applications for my newfound knowledge (the closest came when I included Erich Fromm’s notion of freedom in a piece for my day job at Esquire — before deleting it). Though one fellow “Introduction to Finance” student, an information technology consultant, told me he’s planning to include the course on his résumé, I probably won’t go that far.

But MOOCs provided me with the thrill of relatively painless self-improvement and an easy introduction to heady topics. And just as important, they gave me relief from the guilt of watching “Swamp People.”

As these online universities gain traction, and start counting for actual college course credit, they’ll most likely have enormous real-world impact. They’ll help in getting jobs and creating business ideas. They might just live up to their hype. For millions of people around the globe with few resources, MOOCs may even be life-changing.

As for whether MOOCs will ever totally replace colleges made of brick, mortar and ivy, however, count me as a skeptic. A campus still has advantages for those lucky enough to afford the tuition — networking being one. (Even dropouts like Mark Zuckerberg made key social connections at Harvard.) And an online college will never crack Playboy’s venerable annual list of top party schools.”



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