Nothing is hotter in the education world right now than the massive open online course, or MOOC. Behind the goofy acronym is an idea that flips the old “online degree” on its head. Instead of Internet diplomas offered by sometimes dubious schools for a price, MOOCs make an elite education available to anyone, typically for free but without course credit.
While online materials from MIT and a few other universities had been available for years, these courses first grabbed the public imagination in 2011, when an artificial intelligence class offered by Stanford University attracted 160,000 online students. Today, some of the world’s top educators are extolling MOOCs as a phenomenon that could transform the lives of people unable to attend top colleges in person, including young people in Third World villages, American working moms, and restless retirees.
Among several star-studded new ventures, MIT and Harvard are each pouring $30 million into edX, a nonprofit they founded last year to develop interactive classes from those and other premier universities. “We’re witnessing the end of higher education as we know it,” Northeastern University president Joseph E. Aoun declared in an opinion piece in the Globe in November.
But how completely can online courses reproduce the college experience? Lexington writer and entrepreneur Jonathan Haber wanted to find out. This January, he set out to earn a “one-year MOOC BA.” He is trying to cram about 32 courses, all free, into 2013—with enough breadth and depth to fulfill the distribution requirements for a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.
Already finished with his “freshman year,” Haber has completed or is currently taking about a dozen classes. Among them are edX versions of two legendary Harvard courses, government professor Michael J. Sandel’s “Justice” and “The Ancient Greek Hero” taught by literature professor Gregory Nagy, as well as a class on modernism and postmodernism taught by Wesleyan University president Michael S. Roth and offered through a company called Coursera.
A typical MOOC delivers lectures via video, with discussion boards for students and quizzes or homework graded by computer or fellow students. Many students sign up just for fun, and the vast majority drop out before finishing a class.
Haber, 51, got his old-fashioned bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Wesleyan in 1985, and says he was always the type to listen to academic lectures instead of music in the car. He founded and eventually sold a company that did testing and training in the computer field, and is now a stay-at-home father of two boys. At the moment, he does homework with his sons in the afternoons and immerses himself in his assigned reading on weekends.
Haber, who blogs about his experiment at degreeoffreedom.org, talked to Ideas in a Lexington coffee shop.
IDEAS: Why did you decide to do your own MOOC BA?
HABER: It struck me that people were having the wrong conversations. Everyone was already jumping way ahead to, should we give credit for this? Is it going to destroy the university? It struck me [to ask], what are we learning? Who is learning it?
IDEAS: Do you have any regrets about your original college career that you are trying to rectify?
HABER: Not at all. I was always taking too many courses back then. I think I graduated with 40 credits. I’m not so old that I don’t remember the time and effort I put into a course. No, [the typical MOOC] actually is easier. I can say that based on experience.
I’m taking a couple of Harvard courses. They just ask you to answer a couple of multiple-choice questions at the end of each lecture and do some readings and contribute to discussions. They are very meaningful courses, but it’s basically reading comprehension. Even though one of the best courses I’m taking is this edX course on the Greek hero....It’s really challenging. Even though they only ask you a few questions, they are the right ones.
IDEAS: What are the discussion board conversations like?
HABER: Weirdly, it works best when fewer people contribute. In my Harvard Justice course everybody is required to respond to a [discussion] prompt every week. But because thousands of people are taking part in this course, whenever you type in something really clever, or you see something clever and you respond to it and think you are starting a conversation, you log in five minutes later and it’s a thousand comments down now.
IDEAS: Have you had a situation where you really wished you could go to office hours?
HABER: Sure, especially with philosophy. I’m taking one course which is just recorded lectures [from iTunes U]. There were several points in there where I just disagree with them. I’d like to stand up in class and argue a point....It’s a mixed bag. I do feel like I am getting other advantages out of being able to do what I am doing.
IDEAS: The access?
HABER: Right, to Sandel, to Nagy, and to Roth and all these professors on my own time. The trade-off is I can’t march into the president of Wesleyan’s office and say, ‘Why are you making me read this!?’ [Haber brandishes a copy of Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse.”]
IDEAS: I imagine you could have some great discussions and some that go off the rails, where people are misdirecting each other?
HABER: Yeah, the discussion boards look like comment sections on news stories—really, really thoughtful and really, really misguided. At least half the people taking the courses are outside of the US, meaning that English is not everybody’s first language. Generally I found that any discussion that goes over 25 comments is gravitating toward the mean, which is the same old stale left/right debate. If the discussion goes on over 25 comments usually it’s because they’re having a fight over Ayn Rand.
IDEAS: One of the big questions about MOOCs is how they handle grading. EdX plans to release open source software that grades essays with artificial intelligence. But one of your classes has students grading each other’s essays?
HABER: There are 25,000 students enrolled in the class...so they have set up peer grading mechanism where every student who submits a paper is also required to grade three of them, and to grade them based on a specified rubric....A rubric that is simple enough for anybody to use is going to generate papers that anybody can write, in which case how meaningful are those going to be? Frankly, most of the papers I have written so far are, compare Baudelaire and Freud, now compare Rousseau and Marx.
IDEAS: But you scored poorly on one of them?
HABER: I wrote a clever essay that didn’t really answer the question....And I got called out on it....Peer grading can be used to get people to stay focused on message, but it also means somebody who wants to spread their wings a little bit, they can’t do it there. So where can they do it?
IDEAS: Do you think MOOCs will change the world?
HABER: They’re definitely going to make a big contribution to changing education. The risk is, everyone is so excited about them now, it will be one of those angel/devil things....When in fact, they are an interesting work in progress.
Marcella Bombardieri, a Globe staff writer, is returning to the higher education beat. Contact her at email@example.com.