The ABCs of MOOCs: what it’s like to enroll

The experience was enlightening, both on the subject matter and the potential for MOOCs generally. I learned more than I expected, and worked harder than I expected. I took a course for free from two leading experts in a field that’s of great personal interest — a remarkable opportunity.

For millions around the world who lack access to quality teaching, the MOOC-backers are right: This is a revolution.

Yet I also got a better handle on precisely what MOOCs can’t do, and what would be missing from a college education comprised of them entirely.

The first thing I learned is why so few who start MOOCs finish them: They’re hard. When a class is free and doesn’t generally produce a credential it takes real self-discipline (or a promise to your editor to write about the experience) to make yourself keep up.

These MOOCs simulate a full course at a top-tier university, which means a minimum of 2-3 hours per week of lectures, plus quizzes, homework and reading. Most difficult of all, you have to keep up for 12 to 15 weeks, which is a lot harder for people like me, with a toddler at home and a day job, than it was when I was a full-time college student.

Technologically, the experience was fairly simple and elegant.