Monday, August 25, 2014

Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) - the New Frontier of Education?

Besides online kung fu lessons, education is moving forward toward a new, Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) format, where anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can join in, and possibly pass to receive a (free) statement of accomplishment.

These days, higher education costs too much, and prices are only going up each year... But education is the cornerstone of a civilized society with empowered people, so we still need it! MOOCs are one possible solution to at least some of the problems. Coursera is one of the best, with a large range of courses that can be taken from a wide variety of disciplines, and I cannot help but be excited by their course list! I've taken or are taking a few courses, and have some upcoming as well, so I'd like to share some of my experiences on the platform...

1. It's just like university classes, but online!

Really! It is. It reminds me of sitting in lecture halls, listening to the teacher talk, except that now I can pause or rewind the professor as I please, and only have to listen to him or her in blobs of 5-15 minutes each. It is quite a nostalgic feeling, 12 years after graduating university, and is a really nice feeling to be honest. So, this means that I can now take any course that I am interested in that I wasn't able to take back then - from Medicine (wasn't my major) to Finance (wasn't interested back then) to Security (might be good for my work).

2. Courses have set running times

So, although it's all online, the courses for the most part have set start and end times, so you cannot really choose when to take a course - you have to be ready, and watch what is available, and take the opportunity when you can. I have long wanted to take an Anatomy course, so I jumped when the first Coursera anatomy course appeared: "Going Out on a Limb: The Anatomy of the Upper Limb," in October of 2013. It has since not been offered (although it may be), so I am glad I took the chance! So you have to choose wisely, based on what is available, how likely it will be offered again, and what you want to do. So, it is a bit harder to set a "learning track" than it may be in real university, where you can predict what courses will be offered in what term of what year.

3. You need to have some drive and independence

Unlike actual University, you have to study on your own, and cannot go and talk with the teacher. You do have the option of discussion boards (which are helpful), but certainly, some part of the university experience may be difficult to obtain online. I do think that in certain aspects, the persons who can make the most of MOOCs are those who (like me) have graduated university already (some courses are even only intended for advanced students); but that doesn't mean that MOOCs don't offer great things. For parents, I think that the difference between online and on campus can be alleviated somewhat by having parents also go through a course with their children together, and try to provide guidance and discussion that way.

4. For programming courses, you may need slightly hefty computers

In another course that I took (and am almost finished with: Introduction to Data Science), a virtual machine was provided for students to use for programming assignments in Python, SQL, and R. I think that most students will have no problem with this (it was an easy setup), but since I work from a somewhat ancient iMac - it was (and still is) a bit difficult to download and install the thing (200 MB or so to download, but 2 GB or so expanded), and then run in (I only have 1 GB of RAM). But anyway, some people with lower-than-average computer setups may find similar situations as I did (so maybe I won't take any computer courses for a while). One good thing about programming courses, though, is that there are often automatic graders that can check out your code and see if it is working right.

Overall, I think Coursera is awesome, and it is totally free - offering knowledge to people who want to learn. I have seen some people complain - but the teachers are doing a great service to the community, teaching many students around the world for often nothing. Certainly the experience will not be the same as actually taking classes at a prestigious school, but hey - it's free and it's awesome. You may have to put in a bit more effort, but - it's totally worth it.