Now, imagine you’re taking a class with 35,000 other people. That’s right—thousands of people from around the world—all taking a MOOC. Everyone has a different background, different education level, different level of interest in the material, and different level of ability to process information and communicate their thoughts in English. And everyone is required to participate in a class forum outside of the class lectures.
This means that the mass of information you have to process on a weekly basis is HUGE. My experience as a busy MBA student taught me to develop strategies for dealing with a lot of data—I expected this would happen. But when it comes to taking a MOOC, no one really talks about the fact that all MOOCs have one thing in common, irrespective of subject matter: they can be a rabbit hole that will suck up all your free time if you let it.
On the flip side, MOOCs also offer one really big opportunity: the chance to interact with students from around the world, with whom you would never have contact otherwise. Of course, this is virtual interaction. That is, it’s written; it’s generally not immediate (posting to message boards) and therefore, it’s heavily mediated. And a lot can get lost in the process of communicating this way, as you probably already know just from using email or Facebook. But you still have a chance to learn from fellow students—especially those particularly passionate about the subject.
Creating lasting relationships in this kind of virtual, atemporal environment can be challenging, however. Many MOOCers express a lot of enthusiasm for the forums and the informational/cultural/educational exchanges that take place. But I remain a little ambivalent. It may be a reality of the world we live in, but it can be fatiguing to consume temporally disjointed read/write exchanges. Perhaps I haven’t committed enough of my time to extract a lot of the value that can be found in the forums. And herein lies a big challenge for MOOC producers: the forums are their attempt to create student engagement, but they fail to realize that time is a precious resource. The “payoff” of forum involvement needs to be more immediate for those of us who are balancing a lot of demands on our time.
Then there’s the homework. Homework, you ask? Oh yes, it exists. It varies by topic and type of course, but there are usually assignments to be completed. Everyone is still experimenting right now, but some courses have different certificates for different levels of engagement. One recent course, I ummm…audited, had three levels, depending on how much homework students completed. One of the differentiators between the top and middle level depended on the length of the essay homework for each assignment.
But wait, there’s more! If you’re doing the assignments, then you also have to…grade assignments! What, you thought you could get a free education and get your paper graded by someone with expertise on the subject matter? You can’t. If you think about the numbers, it makes perfect sense: 35,000 students submitting 3-12 page papers. That’s a minimum of 105,000 pages to read and evaluate. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that can be done at a rate of one page per minute (it can’t; this is just a demonstration). That’s 105,000 minutes. Minimum. Which is 1,750 hours. Or 72.92 days. 73 days of grading? We can’t do that! Hmmmm…what if we crowdsource it? Perfect! Peer grading!
For those of you unfamiliar with the horror that is peer grading, here’s how it works: as a participant, you have to read and evaluate some of the work submitted by your classmates. In return, your classmates will be reading and evaluating your work. Having your peers assess your work can be incredibly valuable. And not. A sampling of some of the feedback I have received includes: “Good.” “Didn’t see the (required element).” “Great work on the (required element).” These three comments were all on the same assignment. So you can see that there’s some variability in the process.
As I learned in one particular course, the real value of peer grading is doing the grading. I learned a lot more from assessing my fellow students’ work, and reading other assessments of the same submission, than I got from any comments on my own work. There’s an enormous amount to be learned from stepping out of the role of student and into the role of teacher. After that experience, I take peer grading very seriously.
Giving feedback can be just as valuable as receiving it—especially when you do it well. This is one transferable skill I’ll be taking with me to my next job, now that I’ve graduated. Because receiving completely useless feedback demonstrates just how important it is to take the feedback process seriously. Relating this to the real world, if your coworker is seeking feedback (or needs it but doesn’t seek it), how you provide the feedback may be even more important than the feedback itself. I’ll certainly be putting real thought into my feedback in the future. And, going back to MOOCs, if I sign up for a course that involves peer grading and I don’t have time to do it, I will drop the course.
That’s right, I drop courses. I drop courses like they’re on fire. Heck, I dropped two courses last week. I’m gonna drop a couple more tomorrow. Joking! I’m joking! But the fact is, I’m getting choosey, and the MOOC model allows it. See something you’re interested in? Stick your toe in! I dropped one course because I really didn’t have the time to spare. And I can think of two courses that I dropped because I wasn’t excited by the material; I didn’t see the point of slogging through content that I wasn’t excited to learn.
And that’s another benefit to MOOCs. There’s no penalty for dropping. If you’re paying at your local college, dropping a course after it starts has a financial penalty. For good reason: a physical school has fixed costs associated with their courses that don’t go away if students drop the courses. Once a course actually starts, a physical school is on the hook for those costs. To be sure, there are costs associated with producing a MOOC. But for the most part, those aren’t passed on to the student.
Now it’s time for my final recommendation. I’m actually a big fan of MOOCs. I think they provide a great way to get a solid understanding on a topic in which you have interest. For some topics, I think the learning is just as valuable as taking a class at your local college or university. For other topics, however, I don’t think they’re a substitute for in-person learning. And that may be why my experience shows that technical or quantitative subjects lend themselves more easily to MOOC-style learning. A theoretical, soft-skills business course like Leadership or Organizational Analysis benefits from the back and forth of class discussion. I’ve found that softer skill courses usually involve theories that are often written about (or lectured about) in abstract, overly-academic language. They’re open to interpretation. If you’re taking a class in Statistics, you’re going to be doing problems that have an answer. You can’t argue about a confidence interval.
I’m still signing up for MOOCs, which may say more about me than it does about the courses themselves. I’m curious and I love to learn. So sometimes I see a course and think, “Oooh, interesting!” And if I can fill the gaps in my education by dedicating a few hours a week in front of my computer, why wouldn’t I? Employers want more creativity and different perspectives. By expanding my knowledge base, I think it will serve me well personally and professionally. Computer Science 101? Wow, that never fit into my schedule in undergrad! Why yes, Udacity, I’d love to! And thank you. Thank you for the opportunity.
Photo courtesy of Danisabella.
Guy Larkin is a recent MBA graduate of Hult International Business School looking for opportunities to apply design thinking and service thinking to business problems. He is also the father of two curious and ravenous children.