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What are the implications for learners of Massive Open Distance Courses?

Daphne Koller in her TED talk describes what she sees as the potential of her new initiative, Coursera, which provides courses from a host of major universities, free of charge, to anyone with a computer and interest in learning. Harvard and MIT followed suit with a similar initiative, edX, which does the same. Most major universities in the United States seem to be commited to one collaboration or the other.

At this point there are two big differences between these massive courses and courses in traditional settings. One is that active online interactions among students replace in-person interactions among those who attend a course in the classroom. Another is that students have no actual contact with or feedback from teaching staff, either to answer questions or to provide expert feedback on assignments. Students instead get feedback from peers, which I believe follows a point rubric rather than being narrative, but I am not sure how much variation there is in the style of feedback.

What will these MODCs mean for learners? Thoughts from those actually taking courses through Coursera, edX, or other distance learning initiatives are particularly welcome here!

If you would never contemplate taking such a course, why not?

Topics: education
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    Nov 12 2012: Fritzie, I was excited when Coursera was introduced. I enrolled in a few introductory courses pertaining to my interests and curiosity. Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, Principles to macroeconomics, Introduction to sociology to name a few. The flexibility that the MDOCs offer for many time starved students is a great advantage. Students who are unsure ,if they want to pursue a primary degree/career path in their subject of interest, have an opportunity to take one of the introductory courses. This is a great avenue to expand one's knowledge base!
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    Oct 31 2012: I don't see the subject discussed thus far so here goes. How do these cyber-educators verify that the course work is being done by the person claiming to be doing it? And, will employers accept digital sheepskins in lieu of traditional college degrees?
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      Oct 31 2012: Coursera and edX are not offering any form of credit or grade. Some minimum standard of performance gets you a certificate. There is no verification, to my knowledge, that the person did the work himself.
      I would have to believe an employer would prefer to hire a person whose competency has been measured above a minimum "passing" level of attainment.
      Further, there is no claim for most of the course offerings so far that they are at the level of the course by the same name and instructor at the university of origin.


      edX is developing an alternative in which people for a fee can take a final examination at a testing center.In this case people would need to verify identity on the spot.While edX is a non-profit, Coursera is for profit. Whether they intend to develop assessment procedures for a fee remains to be seen.
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        Oct 31 2012: Thanks for the explanation Fritzie. It sounds like a good deal for old retired coots like me who are trying to stave-off Alzheimer's by exercising the grey matter. Beyond that I don't see the application as an alternative method to preparation for a career. Can it be that the education profession has immunity from Hurricane Internet?
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          Oct 31 2012: I wouldn't say that. The internet is changing greatly how colleges deliver services.There are things that can be handled much better online, not least accessing library materials and communications among and with teaching staffs.

          Higher ed for the enrichment audience, which includes people who do not need credits for any purpose, definitely is taking a hit. A person with a degree or two in hand might choose not to pay $1000 to take a perhaps higher quality course when a lower quality but for him adequate version can be had for free.

          I see the great benefit of these free online offerings as providing access to these courses to those who would never have been able to afford to attend these courses at a university or who wish to augment the education they are getting at a college which cannot draw professors like these.

          For those who want to learn in a variety of areas, who don't need to become highly competent via the course, and who don't need credits verifying such competence, these courses can be fabulous.

          I don't see much risk to solid degree-conferring universities with the educational offerings, research and field work opportunities, and mentoring they can provide. At least not with online learning in the current forms.
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    Oct 31 2012: It seems to me that a student should learn at their own speed, which online education offers.

    It will turn higher education on it's ear as the internet is doing with newspapers.

    My understanding is higher education is costly because of the way getting tenured works and emphasis on publishing that is more and more esoteric and getting grants creates a competition for professors and because of government making money available (same deal as housing) online bypasses this and the accreditation bureau keeps colleges from by passing the current system.

    The downside is that college is where one makes life long contacts.
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      Oct 31 2012: Coursera, the big one of these, does not allow you flexibility in how fast you complete an individual course in the sense that there are assignments due each week if one wants to get a certificate that says one completed the course.

      edX, doesn't give you unlimited time either but gives you more time than if you were taking the course at a university.

      What one can do that one cannot do at a college is take one course at a time.

      Thus far, no more than 5% of enrollees are completing the courses for which they sign up. One reason is surely work habits. Another that these programs have determined is that people sign up for things without the prerequisites for the course, jumping into more advanced courses than their preparation permits.

      Even those who formally speaking have the prerequisites may not be able to handle some of these courses in a context with no staff support in the form of people who know the subject explaining things in a different way.
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        Oct 31 2012: I suppose that the slow speed thing could be handled by taking less units.

        From what you are saying the part of education that needs a live person is the counseling part not the teaching part.

        The downside of free or cheap education is that does not have as much value to the student and they don't HAVE to do it, which we all need the occasional kick in the butt
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          Oct 31 2012: It is not the counseling. It is explaining something a different way.

          Then there is the separate dimension of reliable assessment of whether the student really understands the content and communicating what the student's misconceptions may have been. This sort of judgment and feedback tends, I think, to be more reliable from someone who knows the material than from a random peer in the class.

          There are online learning programs that do build in human feedback, but because people have to be paid to do that, those courses are not free.
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        Oct 31 2012: It seems to me that education is about weighing or comparing things as opposed to memorization.

        I see your point I wonder if that occurs anyway with teachers at the college level.

        Explaining something in a different way then would be what is needed more than teachers?
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          Oct 31 2012: One of the most important attributes of a good teacher is to be able to explain ideas in different ways so that students who come from various backgrounds, with different ways of thinking, and with different misconceptions all reach understanding.

          Teachers are not needed for recitation of facts.

          A teacher who lectures may explain things one or several ways. The textbook may have a different way. The teaching assistants in a college course meeting with the students in small sections are often key in addressing specific questions and providing alternative explanations.

          Because I have great interest in learning environments and their potential, I have just started a course with Coursera. Next term I hope to try an edX. The teacher lectures clearly and there is a discussion board where people in the class can ask each other questions.

          It is interesting how much students do not comprehend from lecture, though the professor is clear, I think.

          I expect the issue would be much more serious in a math or science class or one with more abstract content.
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        Oct 31 2012: Ok I see your point, I do wonder how many teachers do what you describe. I guess we will see if the sovereignty of the market place agrees.
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    Oct 31 2012: I know of one ex tedster that is currently going through coursera but i'm holding back on asking him about it until he has got himself into a routine so he can give me proper feedback but from what his group of peers are restling with is trying to recapture the ability they learnt when they were young, Getting the old brain cells to learn again in a course setting rather than pathfinding what currently interests them online.
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      Oct 31 2012: You are right that it is easier to assess the workings once one has completed a course.

      It is also likely that the experience is quite different for different categories of students, such as those who have had a college education recently, a college education long ago, or a high school education and those delving into a new field or enhancing and updating themselves in their own field.
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    Oct 31 2012: I recall a talk not long ago call something like lecturing millions ... I think it was on Coursera. If I recall right they gave a certificate for successful completion. No credits.

    My nephew attended the University of Phoenix and transfered out to ASU. He thought it was a paper mill buy a degree program with no real learning requirements and no interface with instructors.

    Is a point rubric from peers consistant? What if the peer is wrong and assesses you on his incorrect answer?

    When I went to college ... near a stone quarry where writing supplies could be bought ..... Professors where aluded to as being in a ivory tower. They were not accessable to us mere mortals.

    I wonder if there are department heads in the ODC's. or if there are just contributors that are hired to put together a course and then the course is computer managed by a techie.

    I tried out the local high school course and was satisfied that it was good for homebound students recovering from illnesses. They kept up on the reading and homework. They missed the interaction and clarification that took place in the classroom. Often it was required to re-assess the test because the homebound student was not available for that conversation. This become very time intensive for a real teacher. However, on line for profit schools can search for key words and pass you because the answer is important the learning is not. Even worse A, B, C, D, all the above.

    A final thought. PHd is hired by the university for his research rep in hopes of landing a hugh research grant from a corp or the government. That is where the money is and that is what the university is about ... the bucks. So what happens to all the academic Dr's if on line rules? Is there still a need? What happens to the Arts?

    Somehow ... The Desert College of Higher Knowledge A E-Mail U .. does not have the ring of Stanford.
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      Oct 31 2012: The MODCs use recorded lectures from professors at the collaborating universities.

      The way they do the peer reviews is that each student is evaluated by a large number of peers and the scores are averaged.

      The courses thus far do not, I think, have content for which the logical way of evaluating competency is with papers and narrative writing.
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    Oct 30 2012: College was a while back, but I don't remember any face time with the profs. They gave the page numbers to be read before the next class and then skimmed over what was contained in the page numbers they gave us in the previous class. After a few cycles of that regimen they administered a test to determine if we remembered (not learned, but remembered) a prescribed minimum of the information on those hundreds of pages. I don't see how online learning could be any less efficient, so why not?
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      Oct 30 2012: For me, the face time really varied, but typically these days if a prof is not available to students, graduate student teaching assistants are. For example, daughter number two of mine spends ten or more hours each week working hard with two groups of 12-20 college sophomores to make sure they understand what is going on in physics.
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        Oct 30 2012: Hurrah! A sign of improvement. If today's students are used to having access to, at least, a T.A. for resolution of difficulties I suppose they would feel quite lost without that access. That seems to be a critical issue which could very likely prove to be non-workable.