It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of all aspects of going to school. Given that I’ve spent at least fourteen years of my life in one formal educational setting or another, I’d say that I’ve gotten rather good at attending classes and dealing with the necessary accoutrement.

In elementary school, I was the kid who, at the beginning of each year, loved labeling every single one of their pencils and writing in fresh notebooks. I still do, but I’ve graduated from the shakily hand monogramed pencils.

During middle school and high school, I relished having to write book reports. At my liberal arts university, I perfected the art of the rambling Socratic Seminar discussion and became an expert at using the thesaurus to pad my essays.

After two years in the labor force-working at schools, no less- getting back into the academic routine of lectures and library carrels for my Master’s degree was like finding that old sweater at the back of the closet; slightly musty and funky smelling but still familiar.

Though the coursework got exponentially more demanding, the print smaller and the pictures fewer the older I got, attending in-person classes was the common denominator throughout those fourteen years. As much as I enjoyed the stationery accessories of school, going to class was one of the things I liked best.

Now that I’m ankles deep in Operation: PhD, I don’t have the safety blanket of physical lectures anymore. I can still indulge my notebook buying habit, but without classes to take notes for, it doesn’t feel the same.

Of course, there are still lots of things I should probably need to teach myself in order to become a functioning doctoranda who can tell the difference between chi-squared tests and ordinary least squares. Enter: Massive Open Online Courses.

MOOC: The Village People’s next big single

MOOCs took the world of online education by storm in 2012, with Coursera, Udacity and edX now considered to be the elders of the new digital classroom tribe. Wikipedia lists 23 organizations as being “notable providers” of these massively open online courses, many of them partnering with brand name universities such as Harvard and Stanford to produce said content. Everyone went nuts over this newfangled e-learning platform.

People on the internet cite the participation of these world-renowned institutions as the reason why for them MOOCs are The Best, but there are as many reasons as to why the craze caught on so quickly as there are course providers.

By participating in these courses, you too can access the same gold standard and feeling of smugness as someone attending the brick-and-mortar university but without having to survive a New England winter. Or shell out for the tuition fees. Pretty great, right?

Without geographical or financial restrictions, the thinking went, quality education could truly be global. Previously educationally disenfranchised populations could participate in university-level courses, if only they had reliable access to a computer with Internet.


You say you want a[n educational] revolution

But like communism and hair perms, the ideals behind Massive Open Online Courses that were supposed to revolutionize the ivory tower that is higher education may have been better off in theory than in practice.

A few years in, the ideological MOOC bubble burst. Though in the end it didn’t go the way of the Furby and mood rings, enthusiasm and admiration in the revolution began to wane.

Studies found that course completion rates were low, despite through-the-roof enrollment. Others found that students participating in an online version of a class did worse than their counterparts who attended in-person lectures.

Although “open” is part of the name, courses went freemium. Providers began charging fees to access some courses and completion certificates, a practice in direct opposition to its founding principle of free, open access education. The goals of the education revolution changed. After the initial fervor, users began to realize that, as with most things, MOOCs had their pluses and their minuses.

Naturally, it all depends on what you use them for. If you use a hodgepodge of courses as a replacement for a traditional higher education degree, you’re probably not going to get very far. But if you do them because you really want to learn more about the science of happiness or finally teach yourself to code, you may have more luck.

Although I had heard the acronym floating around for some time, I only learned about the rollercoaster history of the Massive Open Online Course industry while doing the research for this post. My conclusion: lukewarm. I recognize the advantages and drawbacks of the platform, but still can’t fully jump on the bandwagon.

MOOCs and me

My formal institutionally indoctrinated self still can’t get into the same mindset watching the MOOC video lectures as it used to when I would attend ones in-person. Watching videos and clicking through exercises don’t capture my academic interest like physical classrooms used to. It just doesn’t feel like going to “class.”

I used to enjoy the whole ritual behind attending class in person: interacting with classmates and professors, getting bad coffee from the kiosk, feeling slightly like a delinquent when skipping. I haven’t yet found a way to get myself to feel the same with MOOCs.

I feel very productive when I sign up for them, but I still have yet to find the sweet motivation spot to be able to finish strong. The absence of external accountability and a newfound need to self-motivate has created a productivity vacuum that is difficult to fill, especially when there are so many cat videos that need to be watched. It’s still a work-in-progress.

Since I am using MOOCs as a personal education tool-that is, I don’t need them for academic credit nor the shiny LinkedIn badge-for now I am content with using the courses’ freemium “audit” function. I might not be able to access the entire syllabus, or only have a seven day window in which to see all of the information, but it gets the job done.

Of course, I could pay to attend classes at the university. Or I could save that money and put it toward coffee and cañas instead. There’s always a trade-off.

What do you think of MOOCs? Have you ever successfully completed one? Are they the best thing ever or just another overrated fad in education? Any tips to self-motivate?

Extra credit reading: MOOCs Are Dead; How the Pioneers of MOOCs Got It Wrong; Successful MOOC Students; The Flip Side of Completion Rates

(Featured Image: PBS, MOOC image: Learning Tech)

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