A year of MOOCs

I’ve managed few posts in the past few months and that’s because, among other things, I’ve been busy exploring the world of Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs for short.

If you don’t know what a MOOC is there’s a useful description here: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massive_open_online_course.

So over the course of a little over half a year I’ve tried five courses on EdX (https://www.edx.org) and Coursera (https://www.coursera.org).

These were:

I really didn’t know what to expect – or how MOOCs would compare to other forms of education. Are they genuinely useful or are they a soft option?

What I found surprised me and opened my eyes to the possibilities that MOOCs present.

MOOCs appear to take one of two forms. One type, of which Introduction to Computer Science is an example, is self-paced but has a final deadline.

The other type, of which all the others are examples, take place over a specific time-period with weekly deadlines and all participants progressing through the course at the same pace.

Some courses are stand-alone – CS50 is an example.

Others can optionally be linked as a series. These linked courses are called X-Series in EdX and Specializations in Coursera. For example, the Berklee courses are part of the Modern Musician Specialization (https://www.coursera.org/specialization/modernmusician/5) and the Educational Technology and Game Design courses from EdX are part of an Educational Technology X-Series(https://www.edx.org/xseries).

Just as you have the option to take individual courses or a whole series, you also usually have the option of working towards some form of certification or just auditing the course materials. In most cases, auditing courses is completely free, but most organisations charge a small fee for certification. This is still a fraction of what you would pay for the equivalent attendance course, but the trade off is that you don’t have the personal attention of the course staff.

Many courses also use a peer review marking system as the only practical means of grading so many students. This system is not without its challenges – inaccessible project work, poor quality and inconsistent marking being a couple of issues that I encountered. However the course creators do counter this by having each submission reviewed by several peers so that aberrant marking can be averaged out. CS50 though has a clever automated marking system for many of the problem sets, which analyses the output of the computer programmes you write. It can’t evaluate elements of programming style and efficiency as a human marker could, but it’s generally a more successful compromise than peer review marking.

One thing that become quickly apparent is that these courses are in no way a soft option. To complete a course requires a high level of commitment and hard work, especially if you are trying to complete it around other commitments.

Having said that, it’s been a fun and rewarding experience and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a low-cost way to broaden their education.

In the posts that follow I’ll review each of the courses in more detail:

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