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Massive Open Online Courses

This article originally appeared in The Guardian on Oct. 17, 2013.

By Owen Youngman

Those of us who are engaged in teaching "massive open online courses", or Moocs, find ourselves answering a lot of questions these days, and that's one we hear a lot.

One month into my own effort for Northwestern University, I've heard so many versions of that one on the street, in meetings, and even when doing TV interviews, that I have a quick and facile answer: the students and the software. The more interesting questions, however, are about the kinds of teaching and learning possible through platforms like Coursera (that's where my NU class – "Understanding Media by Understanding Google," with an initial enrollment of more than 45,000 – is offered).

A high-school teacher friend asked, for instance, just where I think the most learning is taking place. As much as I might like to point to my lectures, or the 85 pieces of assigned background reading, the most obvious answer turns out to be in online discussion forums – where the conversation is so compelling that I have posted more than 250 times myself. There, in hundreds of asynchronous conversations with peers in every time zone, thousands of learners are working out what they think about the intersection of the web with journalism and media, as they peer through the lens provided by this one particular company.

I really shouldn't have been surprised by the quality of discourse that my teaching assistants and I are tracking (for an average of 10 hours a day), given that a pre-course and a mid-course survey both indicate that 80% or more of the students in out class have four-year college degrees or better. And I really didn't stop to think about how rich the discussions would be due to the diversity of geography and life experiences of the student body – only 20% of whom report they live in the United States. The second largest cohort comprises students in India.

My teacher friend also wanted to know how I could gauge how much the students were learning. But because the class is still running, my answers have to be framed as questions I am trying to answer myself.

First, with more than half the class never having taken a Mooc before, I wonder if what I'm observing is obscured by unfamiliarity with the platform, or the vagaries of technology and spotty bandwidth. The answer is yes, for some, but not for the majority.

Many students are clearly running the text of my lectures, their own work, and their peers' efforts through translation software – some of it twice, in a tech-driven version of that old parlor game "telephone". So, a second question is whether the learning is masked by language issues. The answer is sometimes, but not usually.

A third question is if open-book, untimed, automatically-graded quizzes can be valuable in helping students assess their learning. The answer here is 50:50. Hey, the class is partly about Google; so they can pretty much Google the answers, right?

Last, I must ask how good peer-graded homework assignments really are for this type of learning. That question requires the most reflection. Language limitations, time pressures and job responsibilities – not to mention, the reality that anyone who's on the web can be distracted from a task at any time – may make it too early to judge definitively. But because many people who appear to be among the class's best students are sharing their very, very low opinion of peer-grading, attention must be paid.

Let's frame this as a business challenge. My students may not be paying with dollars and rupees, but they are paying with something equally scarce – their time and attention. If massive online courses are ever going to include paid options, as well as classes that are open and free, the efficacy of peer-grading is an issue that universities and platform providers must address.

Meanwhile, as the instructor, I am learning a lot, as well. And I see, through the growing sophistication of their weekly homework, that students are improving their understanding not just of this topic, but also of their own habits and behavior. To "pass", students need to score 70 out of a possible 100 points during the six-week course, and I expect that thousands will do just that.

Even in a free course, students hold themselves and their classmates to high standards. The more students are engaged with one another, the more likely they are to push themselves to achieve those standards. And again, these engaged, self-critical students are well worth the time spent listening and communicating with them.

To realize the potential of the Mooc "movement", universities, faculties, and platform providers are all going to need to up our games. As has always been true on a traditional, physical campus, the best students already have.

- Owen Youngman is a professor of journalism at Northwestern University.

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