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


An online “dashboard” gives you access to videos, quizzes and other resources. You quickly fall into a routine: a video lecture segment by one of the professors (filmed in MIT’s on-campus version of the course), typically lasting 5 to 15 minutes, followed by exercises to make sure you got the key points, plus a longer homework assignment after each week.

Is it better to be in the room with a lecturer? Probably, in the same way the multi-sensory personal experience of a play can be more powerful than a film. But in-person lectures also have disadvantages.

The research is pretty clear that students tune out after a while. The 5-15 minute intervals make it easier to stay focused. Neurologically, answering a few questions about every 15 minutes and then at the end of a week is a pretty effective way to make things stick. And being able to hit pause or rewind, or speed things up, is a nice bonus.

But while MOOCs can speed up and slow down classroom time a bit, courses like this don’t fundamentally alter it. As in traditional classes, MOOCs generally operate on a cohort model — the group starts together, and generally advances at the same speed, regardless of ability.

Unlike some online courses, which offer self-paced options, MOOCs generally stick to this model. I found this frustrating, as did others in the class. One week I had a work trip and couldn’t complete the assignments, so took a couple zeroes. But there was no option to work ahead one week, or catch up after. If the point is to have convenient access to the material, why the tightly constrained schedule?