My year in MOOC-land

It was just a year ago that I enrolled in my first massive open online course (MOOC), Duke University’s Think Again: How to Reason and Argue offered through Coursera.

MOOC proliferation has proved polarizing on college campuses.

And as I took the class and began listening in on the excited media conversation about this new teaching and learning medium, I noticed a positive version of the same kind of mania surrounding the negative stories accompanying this year’s MOOC backlash.

In both cases, arguments in favor and critical of MOOCs seemed to be made by people who had in common almost no first-hand experience taking a MOOC class.

In fact, even those who had participated in some kind of MOOC project rarely had experience beyond teaching or taking a single class to completion.

What seemed to be missing was the voice of a student who had taken enough courses to learn the equivalent of what someone would get by sitting through an entire degree program, an experience that would provide exposure to courses from all of the major MOOC providers created by different professors at different institutions on a wide range of subjects.

And so I decided to provide that voice by creating the Degree of Freedom One Year BA project, an experiment within the wider MOOC experiment that would require me to take 32 college level courses over twelve months that met the distribution and major requirements of a liberal arts degree at a traditional college or university.

And to see how well MOOCs had progressed past their original focus on computer science subjects, I decided to major in a non-scientific field (philosophy).

See page 2 for the author’s most important takeaways from his MOOC experiment…

With just a few weeks to go until “graduation,” some of the things I’ve learned through a year of taking and reviewing classes, writing about the subject of free learning on a daily basis, and interviewing leaders in the MOOC movement include:

  • While some MOOCs try to match the scope, rigor and level of demand of a traditional college course, others have different goals. For example, many professors prefer fitting the material they feel most passionate about teaching into a 6-8 week course, rather than a full semester.
  • MOOC range in level of rigor and demand, especially with regard to reading requirements and the number and difficulty of assignments. This ties into the first point since some courses are trying to measure all of the learning objectives of a semester-long course while others don’t want to create too many barriers to student participation.
  • A new visual language is slowly being created within the diverse realm of massive online courses as sage-on-stage lectures are being supplemented or replaced by filmed conversations between a professor and his colleagues, on-location shots or interviews with outside experts, turning video lectures into one of the most intimate parts of a MOOC class.

And creating such intimacy is vital in a class with thousands of participants where assessment still consists primarily of machine-scored multiple-choice tests and discussion forums are overcrowded with people primarily talking to themselves.

But it in the very areas of assessment and community building that current experimentation within MOOCs is most robust.

Which means that the MOOC experiment, informed by the wide range of voices (both supportive and critical), needs to continue if this important new learning technique is to be allowed to provide practical (rather than utopian) value to a transformed learning landscape.

Jonathan Haber is Chief Learn at Degree of Freedom whose work can be found at

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