Much Ado About MOOCs

iStock_000016994590MediumBy Andrea Anastasio and Ilana Ostrin

September is here and it is nearly impossible to walk into any department store without being overwhelmed by the back-to-school sales. If commercialism has anything to say about what education means, it is made up of new notebooks, pens, and trendy clothing, i.e. – physical items. But with the rise of technology, education may potentially become less physical and more digital. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are now offering students the ability to take college courses online for free and on their own schedule.

It is easy to see why MOOCs have suddenly generated a great deal of buzz in education. With tuition costs rising (tuition at my own alma mater is $42,000 total per school year) and the struggle to find employment post-graduation, MOOCs offer an intriguing option. These courses can be accessed by anyone who has internet, opening the door to many who cannot afford a college-level education. The prospect of anyone having access to education on the level of prestigious schools such as Stanford certainly has its charm.

MOOCs are offered through several online programs, including Coursera and Udacity, which are both associated with Stanford University. Coursera allows students to take courses and even form peer groups based on location, language, and interests. A wide variety of courses are offered and students can be tested on the material, all online.

Coursera does give you a certificate upon completion of a course, but data has yet to show how many employers accept such certificates. What does one do when their college education only exists online? When the effort is not made official by a grade or certification? Course selection is also somewhat limited. MOOC-List does not even list any courses specifically related to biochemistry or molecular biology, offering more general chemistry courses instead. Online courses are particularly troubling for science students who must also learn in a lab as well as from a textbook. One cannot conduct lab experiments by themselves with only a laptop. Saylor University offers an online chemistry major with 18 courses that includes assessments with videos but no group projects. There is a serious difference between a student with hands-on knowledge of chemistry and one who has only ever learned chemistry by watching a video. It is this lack of social interaction, a necessary skill that must be learned as well, that concerns me about MOOCs.

As a recent college graduate, I can say that my college experience was not shaped just by whether I took lecture courses or discussion-based courses. For me, it was being surrounded by peers with similar and opposing interests that I learned the most from. Learning to test theories in the lab is crucial for learning processes such as trial-and-error, as well as practical experience. The classroom is one of the last mediums where interaction and connection can be learned and taught. Would MOOCs take away from this experience by promoting learning through a computer screen?

A visible problem with MOOCs right now is the lack of data. One cannot fully answer questions about how effective these courses are because little data exists to demonstrate whether students are benefiting or not from these courses. Until more data comes in, there are many variables to each student’s experience.

We should remember that MOOCs have existed for only about half a decade, but the tradition of learning and the expectation of the “college experience” (at least in the American sense) has been around much longer. Online learning as a whole has been around for over a decade now. MOOCs are changing the face of online learning with their not-for-profit format and access to top-tier professors and courses. The common quest for elite learning is now only a click away.

MOOCs have their challenges – without a firm place to report to, or being in the presence of physical beings, it can be hard to stay motivated. But the experience and expectation of an independent, remote MOOC course can also be very freeing and attractive to students who prefer to learn solely and at their own dictation and pace.

MOOCs may represent the future of learning – accessible, open, and available at any time from any place. Trends with MOOCs should be closely watched – they will be truly representative of shifting education methods. As courses develop, we can hope to see more variety in science courses offered and whether the lack of a lab makes online learning impractical for science students. Whether problematic or not, students and educators should remain actively engaged in MOOCs discussions to help shape the future of education.

To learn more about MOOCs and available courses, go to: http://www.mooc-list.com/.

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