21st Century Education: A First-Hand Experience with the MOOC

MOOC. It’s such a small word – not even a word, four letters. Yet this tiny word has the power to be a very large change agent in education. MOOC stands for Massively Open Online Courseware – an opening of education to anyone, anywhere in the world, as long as they have a computer and Internet access. The concept of the MOOC is not new – MIT has been making courseware open to the public for many years. Neither is the concept of the online course, though such courses had always been behind a paywall of a university or corporation. In 2012, California-based company Coursera revolutionized the basic concept of the MOOC. Through Coursera, users have access to over 200 courses from some of the world’s top universities – all for free. The courses are truly interdisciplinary, ranging from humanities (Listening to World Music), the social sciences (The Law of the European Union: An Introduction), and the natural and applied sciences (Introduction to Organic Chemistry, Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering).

My fascination with online courses comes from coming of age when the World Wide Web was still in toddler stage. Webpages were basic, AOL was the top ISP, and connection speeds were laughably slow. When I went back to library school in 2007, the internet grew up considerably, but my library school was one of few (if not the only one) that did not offer online courses. This intstructional philosophy, coupled with my part-time student status, left me critically thinking about the state of education. How could someone like me – a non-traditional student, balancing my education and a full time job – get the benefits when there are only so many hours in a day? How could those students with families manage to get an additional degree without sacrificing too much of family life?

Coursera was not my first venture into online education – I took a free class through O’Reilly Media in XML programming in 2010. What made Coursera different from that course was the breadth and depth of subject matter offered, and the ability to receive a certificate of completion for the class.

The first class I took this fall was in the Python programming language, taught by instructors at the University of Toronto. The class structure was easy for me to follow. Each week, the instructors posted several videos on the week’s topics, along with a weekly quiz. It was easy enough for me to watch the videos and work on quiz questions during lunch hour at work or in the evenings/weekends. I spent no more than two hours each week working on coursework. Larger programming assignments were due every other week, and that took up maybe an extra hour or so of my time. Students needing assistance about the course, or just a place to socialize could find community in the course message boards, or through a Meetup-sponsored group. I participated in a local (New York City) group, and the benefits extended beyond coursework assistance – I came out of it with some great friends.

From a pedagogical perspective, the instruction was designed very well. The combination of weekly quizzes and longer assignments helped me to grasp concepts quickly. The instructors also took great care to dig deep into the theory of the science of Python, using a visualizer to step through the code so you could see how the computer processed the language. They transformed it into a living, breathing thing – past the symbols on the computer screen. They were extremely quick to respond to student concerns, such as errors in questions on the final exam and extension of due dates after Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast United States in the middle of the course.

My largest concern with Coursera was with academic integrity.  After a cheating scandal broke out in a few courses, the company added an honor code to enrollment.  Some students interpret the honor code so strictly as to be impractical, and I experienced one such case where an innocent comment resulted in a cheating accusation from a classmate, including threats to report me to the instructors and Coursera.  Thankfully, several students came to my defense, and no further action from higher powers that be resulted.  It’s difficult to monitor integrity in a course such as this, when answers to questions are more quantitative than qualitative.  Does a simple honor system like what Coursera has in place now work?  Or, are more security measures (two-step or IP authentication, for example) necessary?

What should librarians think about when it comes to the MOOC?  Instructional design librarians and subject specialists should think about how MOOCs can affect the subject guides and instructional sessions they curate.  Is there an obligation to offer support for courses not offered at their university or students not matriculated at the school?  Librarians who manage collection development and electronic resources should ask similar questions – is there an obligation to spend collection development funds on resources that do not directly support your institution or users?   Faculty and department heads should think about how to properly measure assessment for these courses, especially if they want to offer credit. School administrators should carefully think about privacy of student data, especially if the institution is in a country that has stricter privacy laws than the United States (such as Canada).

What’s next for Coursera – both for me and for the company? I will be starting my next class in E-Learning and Digital Cultures at the end of this month, and two more set to start later this year. If you’re attending THATCamp Libraries in Boston at the end of February, I am hoping to convene a discussion group on the MOOC. (Watch the THATCamp Libraries blog for further details.) For Coursera, the company hopes to continue expanding its course offerings, and is in talks to allow Coursera courses to count for college credit. (Some institutions do this already, but Coursera is looking to broaden that reach.) There are rumors that Coursera will start charging for classes or for the end of course certificate, but for now, they are just that – rumors.

We’re growing closer to true freedom of education – opening scholarly pursuits to all. And all it took was the concept behind that little word of MOOC.

About Our Guest Author: Kate Kosturski is the Institutional Participation Coordinator for the United Kingdom and Northern Europe for JSTOR.   You can find Kate exploring innovations in teaching, learning and training on the T is for Training podcast, where she is an occasional guest host and frequent panelist.  You can follow her on Twitter as @librarian_kate.