Article Impression: If You Believe in MOOCs, You Are Assuming Too Much

I originally started this blog in order to create a virtual map or path that people could follow in order to learn a form of programming. I wanted to be able to list out websites, whether they were text based, interactive exercises, video lectures, books, or some combination, and then order them to create a curriculum.

For example; I wanted to say, get started on Codecademy, pick a language you enjoy, figure out why you are learning to code, and then go here, here, and here, read these books and then try to build ___. Prioritizing free websites and readily available online versions of books in order to get as many people learning for as low of a cost as possible.

But for now I’m going to sideline a bit and provide my thoughts on various articles and posts that deal with the idea of online education, whether it is praise or criticism.

Here is the article and it is by Richard N. Landers, and it argues against the idea of MOOCs being an effective learning platform. He lists the three key features of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs):

  1. Anyone can enroll for free
  2. Fully online
  3. Rely on peer involvement over instructor involvement

He states that the hype behind MOOCs is overrated and there are many disadvantages to this so called ‘solution’ to college. I agree with the second part; there are many disadvantages to online learning, and it most certainly is not for everyone.  Here are a few of my own issues with online education and things that people have told me when I told them I was serious about learning on my own.

  • You have to be either incredibly disciplined and motivated or very passionate about coding. Otherwise you’ll give up.
  • If you don’t have strong fundamentals in the basic theory of computer science like Data Structures and Algorithms, you will be building your skills off a weak foundation and eventually someone will call you out on it.
  • The amount you can learn alone is a fraction of what you could learn in a group or in person class.
  • It can get incredibly depressing sitting in a room by yourself with just a computer trying to learn something.

Now these are relative and only my take on it. You could be introverted like me and not get depressed when working alone, in fact working alone might very well be the best environment for certain people. But when you actually join a company and work on a team, you have to be able to work well with others.

The author of this article makes five assumptions about online education and rebuts them.

  1. MOOCs rely on automated grading to evaluate student progress
  2. MOOCs are effective at teaching basic skills that can be assessed automatically
  3. MOOCs will create a marketplace for learning skills without the need for degree programs. People can pick the knowledge they want to gain and gain only that.
  4. MOOCs rely on discussion forums to facilitate learning, and based on the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ the quality of answers on the discussion forms can fluctuate wildly.
  5. MOOCs rely on the support of others currently taking the course to provide the social context for a course, and the instructors care less about their students because they are only online.

These are all valid concerns. Automated grading only works effectively on basic skills such as spelling, grammar, basic math, and even very rudimentary programming. When it comes to topics that require critical thinking and more writing, it is not feasible to attempt grading them through an algorithm, you need an actual person.

Learning skills without degree programs however I can’t agree with. Certificates gained online do not hold the same power as a full degree from an institution so how could they replace them? They are better used as a supplementary accomplishment. Picking knowledge that an individual wants to learn happens in colleges as well, and I believe it is actually a better idea, when paired with a general outline of necessary skills. If you can find out what you want to do and then search for classes that are focused on that topic, it’ll be easier for you to stay motivated and actually be involved in learning, whether it is online or in person, because you are invested in that topic.

Discussion forms and support from other students can’t be viewed as an argument against MOOCs. In fact they are one of the best things about taking a course online. You can see questions that have been posted in the past when you are taking a course later on and 99% of the time a question that you have has probably been asked before. This makes it much easier to find the answer to a question without waiting for a response from someone. The degree of instructor involvement does vary by website and by course, and it is just like college classes in person where the teacher is a huge factor in the quality of the class. Whether the instructor is working for a school providing online versions of a class offered in person, versus a class that is ONLY offered online through a website like Udemy, the teachers involvement will vary. Usually in the second case you’ll get more involved instructors.

Overall this article was a good read and I love seeing opposing perspectives on online education because it really is in a transitional phase and there will always be people that look for the negatives in any form of change. Finding these criticisms and assessing them is the best way to improve, so I will continue to look for posts like these and offer my arguments.

Thanks for reading.

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