The learning curve: MOOCs

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Musa Jamshed

Conventional wisdom sees students with perfect attendance as perfect students.

But that argument only holds up assuming that attending a lecture is the best way to learn.

As I sit through purely technical classes such as MATH 205 only to later find all the material online, better explained on Khan Academy, I’ve become skeptical of that assumption.

We’re approaching the age of functional robots, and yet we still show up to class with paper and pencil to listen to one person’s best attempt at explaining concepts to us while we desperately try to note and retain the information.

I look at the amount of money we’re paying for our courses and wonder if they’re actually any use, because the argument for digital education tools gets stronger every day.

An especially useful type of tool used by 81 million students in 2017 is a MOOC, or, Major Open Online Course, which gained traction in 2011 after Stanford released its first three courses, including Introduction to AI.

MOOCs — like Coursera, edX and Udacity, to name a few — bring the entire educational experience online. They feature videos instead of lectures, automatically graded assignments, and include rich digital forums for questions and conversations between participants and professors.

Because they’re 100 percent online, MOOCs have virtually unlimited capacity.

And besides scale, there are other serious advantages to courses with online modules that you can watch from the comfort of your library, coffeeshop, or even your bed.

You can watch at 0.5x speed if a complex concept proves hard to follow.

You can watch at 1.5x speed if you’re getting the material easily.

You can pause if you need to go to the bathroom.

You can rewind if you missed a sentence.

You can skip ahead if you want to see what the final answer looks like before you see the process.

Essentially, you are placed in charge of customizing your learning experience.

“It made no pedagogical sense to expect all students to take the same amount of time to achieve the same objectives,” Benjamin Bloom, an educational psychologist, once said. 

Ever since I heard that I took a long thought about how comical of an idea it is that we use a one-size-fits-all model for teaching.

Being able to maneuver through course material at different paces helps address learning breakdowns, or situations when students don’t understand a concept.

Learning breakdowns plague traditional classrooms when a student fails to understand just one topic and is left grasping for straws for the remainder of the period.

Educational technology also allows for gamification — using a game as a medium — a hot topic recently after researchers have realized it’s a lot more than about having fun.

For example, when you’re testing your knowledge in an interactive quiz, you learn through instant feedback. Assignments for traditional classes and don’t get returned for about a week, when you’ve forgotten all about them.

So if MOOCs are more effective than normal courses, why doesn’t everyone take them?

The answer is two-fold. According to research compiled by The New York Times, advanced learners see substantially higher results when using online courses but low-achieving students showed either similar or worse results.

This result gets at the heart of the debate on online courses. They are ultimately more useful resources than traditional class structures but they don’t provide teacher support or systems of accountability.

It also suggests something startlingly contradictory about our current system of higher education. The top schools employ the best professors and give extra support to students who apparently don’t need it, while lower-ranked schools are under-resourced.

But while MOOCs are certainly gaining popularity, by talking to my peers it seems the biggest reason they are not the norm is that they’re not recognized as such by employers.

Employability often takes the form of recognizability. Companies want to hire those who attended name-brand schools and took standardized classes.

I think this is a shame because after seeing the recent college admissions scandal and in my personal experience with fellow Lehigh students, merit is not always the top driver in academic and professional success.

I challenge employers to take a more critical approach to hiring and properly vet online courses instead of indifferently dismissing them.

If there ever were to be sweeping changes to our education system as I’m suggesting there should be, there would have to be a debate about what aspects of in person instruction and online instruction could combine for the perfect learning concoction.

The value of social interaction is one thing that comes to mind, but “blended courses” that combine mostly online instruction with in-person discussion and practice have proved that you can still get face-to-face value from mostly online courses.

That was the only real pro I could think of from traditional courses, and I sat down for a good 10 minutes trying to make an honest list of strengths for each method. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t think of more.

So if you’re skeptical about my radical ideas here, I challenge you to define your perfect system: What methods would be included?

Unless you think there’s a gaping hole in my argument, you should agree it’s time our education system to radically change and catch up to the technological advancements we use in the rest of our lives.

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1 Comment

  1. Totally agree! I’ve taken tons of MOOCs and learned so much more than in the traditional education system. They also have a huge variety in the classes that you are able to take, and you can take them over the course of a short break as opposed to spreading them out over a few months.

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