Studying with MOOCs

In the past two months, I have spent a good part of my free time and then some following different free online courses offered by top US and Canadian universities on the Coursera platform.

The idea of massive open online courses (MOOCs) isn’t new, but it started spreading only in the last couple of years, facilitated by the wider availability of broadband internet and YouTube.  The first platform that made a splash was Khan Academy.  It was featured on TED and was all over the internet a year or two back.  Salman Khan (not no be confused with a hot Bollywood actor going by the same name), who holds two Bachelor’s and two Master’s degrees, started by tutoring his cousin over the internet.  He was so good at explaining things that the idea picked up steam and Khan dropped his career as a hedge fund analyst to become a full time tutor on YouTube.

Now, new platforms are spring up like mushrooms, of which Coursera is by far the most popular – reaching around 2 million students.  Varied courses in all academic fields are offered by over 30 of the top US, Canadian, European, and Asian universities.  For someone who craves learning, this is a dream come true.  I find it the best thing to happen to education ever since university research labs became connected via the internet’s granddad some 40 years ago.

Two big, make-or-break issues lie ahead on MOOCs path – monetization and evaluation.  So far, the new platforms have not attempted monetization.  But it is coming.  A lot of people are engaged in the preparation of the courses – professors, assistants, techies.  The content provided is high quality.  Clearly, a lot of value is being added and someone has to foot the bill.  But, as with all new online ventures, finding the proper way to charge for the service offered will be tricky.  Hopefully, the right path will be chosen and MOOCs will remain as helpful and widely available as they are now.

The other problem is how to evaluate the large number of students that participate in the courses.  With some 40,000 to 80,000 people taking a course, it is unthinkable for the professor and his assistant(s) to do the grading.  While in the hard sciences it is easy to know when you are not getting it, in the arts you need good assessment to know where you are standing.  In both, you need feedback to be able to find your mistakes and learn from them.  This is an area I find lacking at the moment.  Coursera has come up with a peer grading system where, for written assignments, students are asked to review 4-5 papers in exchange for getting theirs graded.  You can imagine that while the idea sounds good in theory it yields pretty poor results in practice.  People of all backgrounds are taking the courses and not everyone is fit to grade and provide feedback.  Those with the necessary knowledge to provide valuable insight into others’ work likely don’t have to take the course, and probably aren’t.  Without proper assessment and feedback, the learning process is impaired.  The most feasible solution would be to use qualified student graders.  Whether this would be somehow crowdsourced for free or worked out through the monetization method remains to be seen.

Apart from these issues, the courses are wonderful.  Those participating for knowledge’s sake won’t be disappointed.  However, there was a dismal demonstration of stereotypical thinking by large and vocal groups, in each and every course, of people clamoring for “certificates.”  It is because some universities had decided to offer a statement of accomplishment to all students who successfully complete a course and meet certain performance requirements.  To me it is the pinnacle of absurdity to get all worked up over a piece of paper with your name on it that is particularly worthless right now.  Yet, many were upset about grades and not getting their “certificates.”  Those were probably the most active participants in the forums.  How getting a sheet of paper for completing a free online course becomes so important is beyond me, but it speaks volumes about the way people are thinking about education.  I believe the internet and MOOCs can change this and refocus people on their abilities, instead of on their diplomas.

Speaking of focus, the courses I am taking don’t necessarily relate to investing.  I like having a basic understanding in many different areas of interest.  So, I am taking courses in data analysis, programming, investing, modeling, history, and operations management.  Because the course load is too much for the time that I have, I won’t be completing all of the courses I have started.  I knew this when I enrolled and I did it nonetheless, because I wanted to get an idea of what the courses were all about and then decide in which to put most of my efforts.  Right now none of the courses has a direct application in what I do.  However, as Jobs said, you can’t connect the dots looking forward.

For the time being, I am enjoying the opportunity to learn what is being taught in some of the best universities.  What’s there not to like?