Would he be part of the 7 Percent?

I’m a MOOC

Mrs Smith
Mrs Smith
Sep 28, 2013 · 8 min read

mook [mook]
noun Slang.
a contemptible, incompetent person.

Early in 2013 I made a somewhat unconscious (yet potentially awesome) decision to attempt to become the most-diversely-educated-yet-least-academically-credentialed human on the planet. I started taking Massively Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. My ongoing adventures in continuing education actually began almost twenty years ago, but this new, hotly debated development in guided instruction, which allows anyone with an Internet connection to take free (or very low cost) online courses from highly prestigious colleges and universities from all over the world was just too appealing not to jump in with both feet. So I jumped in, hard.

My academic career deviated quite dramatically from the expected path long ago, so my latest personal quest wasn’t really all that surprising to my friends and family. As a teen, I attended a private, independent high school with a strong college-prep curriculum, but my interests lay in a more creative vein, so after graduation, I decided to study film at USC—though not the one in California—the one in Columbia, South Carolina. After two years and several changes in major, it was clear Gamecock Country wasn’t a great place to develop my burgeoning artistic skills, so I transferred to East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. This school was not exactly a hotbed of aesthetically and culturally forward creativity either, but I got in-state tuition and ECU is, ironically, the “Art” school for the UNC system. I hated every single second I was there and lasted only two semesters. After that miserable year, I moved to Atlanta where I was admitted to Portfolio Center, a professional school for advertising, design and photography. I completed the two-year program and came away with a post-graduate diploma in graphic design.

All of which is a long way of saying that, though I spent a cumulative five years as an undergrad, I have no terminal degree. The best spin I can put on this is that I studied hard, learned a lot, got an education I could afford and was probably better prepared than most to work in my field of study, despite not having a piece of parchment to prove it. Since then, I have wandered in and out of continuing ed., studying a myriad of subjects, from Appraisal Studies in Fine and Decorative Arts at NYU to Project Management at my local community college.

I studied hard, learned a lot, got an education I could afford.

These days, thanks to my ever-wandering educational eye, I’m wildly excited about the prospect of taking MOOCs, because really, I am all about the learning. I’m just as happy watching video lectures about Surviving Disruptive Technologies (University of Maryland) or Organizational Analysis (Stanford University) as I am anticipating my participation in discussion forums on Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC’s The Walking Dead (UCIrvine). The dirty secret is, I only take classes that are interesting to me—which are not necessarily classes that will enhance my résumé or skill set—though recently, I did complete (with distinction, natch) a short course in Design Thinking (Stanford, d.school). To warm up the long winter nights to come, I’m presently contemplating Scandinavian Film and Television or possibly The New Nordic Diet—From Gastronomy to Health, both from the University of Copenhagen.

It might seem odd, but these days nothing makes me happier than spending my free time reading lengthy texts, watching boring video lectures (which I play at 1.25x speed), sitting through painfully protracted and glitchy Google Hangouts and then having my tirelessly researched projects, papers and class discussions ruthlessly trolled by peer review assessors—AKA my classmates. I put myself through this because I am a motivated student and the pressure I feel to do well in these classes is entirely personal in nature. MOOCs work for me because I have learned to take the parts of the class that are valuable and to discard those that I find off-point, irritating or unnecessary. I can do this because, frankly, I have nothing to prove. In the same way these traits compelled me to move from school to school as an undergraduate, seeking the best course of learning for my own needs, so have I entered the MOOC universe, and specifically, the constellation that holds alternative higher education.

MOOCs work for me because I have learned
to take the parts of the class that are valuable and to discard those that I find off-point, irritating or unnecessary.

As they are currently engineered, MOOCs could never be considered an equitable platform to the (assumed) scrupulously challenging academic environment of university-level coursework. MOOCs might one day be referred to as the Cro-Magnon man of educational evolution, but they’ve a long way to go before these massively open educational opportunities might be considered any more scholastically valuable than say, watching an entire series of YouTube videos of Michio Kaku explaining the physics of string theory. No one would assume this makes someone competent to think or write comprehensively about a subject in an academically rigorous arena—though it might be a very interesting way to find that rare, naturally adept non-traditional star student, which is something that some MOOC platform data collection systems promise, but consistently fall miserably short of actually discerning.

After coming close to not earning the unquestionably useless certificate in my first course, which I took through Coursera, I swore I would never take another MOOC. I was furious when my term paper, for which I wrote over 2,000 words on the disruptive technologies facing public education in the 21st century, (some of which formed the basis for this article) seemed to have been badly misunderstood by my assessors. It didn’t seem fair that I could spend hours slaving over an assignment and receive only minimum credit and no useful feedback, to then review and assess other student work, sometimes finding only single sentence responses that often barely made sense. I honestly expected peer review to include at least some students who were academic peers. I felt quite confident that I understood the material and had satisfactorily completed the course syllabus and project rubrics—unfortunately I felt no such confidence in my classmates’ ability to discern that in my work. I wasn’t mad at my anonymous cohort, I just wanted to garner some value from the assessment portion of the class. Even for the single sentence responders I tried to offer encouragement and thoughtful suggestions as to how they might better express what they had learned. I believed that was one of the unwritten, but understood fundamentals of taking a MOOC.

It didn’t seem fair that I could spend hours slaving over an assignment and receive only minimum credit.

MOOCs are often taught by pretty amazing professors and the course materials are usually very similar to the for-credit courses offered on campus by these same professors. What I find missing is not so much the classroom experience, as the classmate experience. Since anyone can sign up for a MOOC—there are usually no prerequisites and MOOCs are essentially free—there is no barrier to entry. While there are probably plenty of students in each class with similar levels of experience and skills to mine, it is incredibly difficult to find and connect to those students as they are members of an invisible crowd. This issue becomes most obvious in the peer review process, which is how MOOCs get around having to evaluate coursework on a direct instructor to student basis. The important stipulation of genuine peer review is that the work is evaluated by people of similar competence to the producer. When you’ve got 50,000+ people enrolled in a class, finding genuine peers is next to impossible—even if only 500 of them are actually participating in any meaningful way.

What I find missing is not so much the classroom
experience, as the classmate experience.

NovoEd, the platform through which Stanford produces some of its classes has begun proffering Learning Teams to help support smaller group, comparably-aligned peer connection, idea brainstorming and review. It’s a good idea, but for the Design Thinking course, even though my aptly named Higher Ed Innovation team was made up of students with similar backgrounds, jobs and educational experience, as one of six in the group, I was the only one to complete the course—which is actually higher than the average MOOC course completion rate of less than 7 percent. Learning Teams, since they are self-selected, can’t yet provide useful metrics for student intent or commitment.

To their credit, most MOOC developers now offer differing levels of participation, from a low-level “I’m just looking around here” observer-type participant, to a full-on “With Distinction” certification that offers, if not actual course credit hours, then at least documentation that verifies the student has completed the course work to an academic standard required for paying students to pass. Unfortunately, many will aim for the distinction track, but few persevere to the end.

Image: Courtesy of Nature magazine

My experiences have really got me thinking about what MOOCs are actually good for. We are told over and over that they will be the future of education—an opportunity for any student to study and learn at some of the most prestigious schools in the world. When for-profit schools are granting degrees to thousands of students every year—most of which offer little in terms of measurable job skills achievement, not to mention a disproportionately high ratio of student loan debt—a chance to take MOOCs, even for no discernable credit or recognition might seem like an amazing opportunity to enhance one’s academic bona fides. The sad truth is that even when a MOOC is well-designed, utilizes high production values and affords useful and valuable learning outcomes, students who gain that knowledge for free will find it difficult to realize any quantifiable benefit, mostly for the inelegant reason that they haven’t paid for it. Right now, what MOOCs advertise and what they signal are two very different things.

Though MOOCs exhibit particular twin-star similarities to their brick and mortar university counterparts, their dissimilar attributes are generally considered to be less attractive and somewhat untrustworthy. I have no doubt that much of what today makes MOOCs unacceptable as quantifiable, recognition-worthy educational assets will be adapted, improved and legitimized over the short span of the next few years. Strangely, MOOCs’ currently limited, but evolving utilization of big data to report on student progress and gauge course teaching methodologies may be the one thing that someday propels them into higher regard as a more accurate assessor of both potential and actual student success. That’s an educational disruption I could embrace.

I left the world of four-year, degree-granting education long ago; these days, I’m foraging through the wilds of primordial MOOCs seeking knowledge and stimulation and I’m actually getting a very good return on my investment. In a decade’s time, the collegiate world I deserted may find itself an overpriced, overbuilt, underpopulated and increasingly hollow planet collapsing under its own weight. MOOCs, on the other hand, might become a reasonably inhabitable world teeming with new life. For now, I’m happy to be an adventurous explorer, soaking up as much free education goodness as I can absorb, and basking in the glow of each Certificate of Completion I receive and can hang with pride on my computer desktop.

    Mrs Smith

    Written by

    Mrs Smith

    Partner and Executive Producer at Changeist: strategist, educator, writer and designer of critical futures.

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