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Trampled Over by a Herd of MOOCs

Remember your first day of college? How you felt when you first set foot on that sprawling campus with its freshly cut grass and unrequited intellectual possibilities? Well, it all came rushing back when I joined my first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).

My sister in law casually mentioned that she was taking a combinatorics class on taught by a professor from Princeton University. As a liberal-arts undergrad, that piqued my attention – “really? I can take a bona fide science class from a top university and not get rejected? And all for free???”

The answer was a resounding, "yes!"


I started tepidly, like a freshmen would, logged onto Coursera and signed up for 'Health Informatics in the Cloud' by Mark Braunstein from Georgia Tech (I work in healthcare). Great professor, great practical lectures and a plethora of interesting interviews from established and emerging leaders in that industry. The class was promoted as 9 weeks long with a workload of 5 to 7 hours a week.

I took it very seriously: notes, screenshots, submitting homework on time, etc. In the face of such good fortune, I wanted to be nothing less than the ‘model’ student. Yet it felt too good to be true, about a quarter into my Health Informatics class I had an urge to sign up for an additional class. You know, before the gig was up and they either started charging outrageous fees or asked for GRE scores.

So I signed up for my second Coursera class, 'Computational Investing, Part I' by Tucker Balch also from Georgia Tech. Another great class and entertaining professor. Here I got to learn about Python, custom libraries, and back testing financial models. Obviously, way, way, too good to be true.

In the middle of the night I woke up sweating with the realization that I had to sign up for as many classes as I could before it all came crashing down. So I signed up for "Web Intelligence and Big Data” from the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, "Passion Driven Statistics” from Wesleyan University, "Statistics: Making Sense of Data” from the University of Toronto, "An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python” from Rice University, "Machine Learning” from Stanford University, and "Introduction to Data Science” from the University of Washington.


Wait! What about the competition?? I signed up for “Elementary Statistics” on The class was free until I heard that for $150 I could get 4 college credits through a partnership with San Jose State University (STAT 95). Even though I had no intention of attempting another bachelor’s degree, I instantly forked out the money as it did warn that the class was filling up quickly (update: last I checked, spots still available).

It was time to step up my commitment, how many more classes could I take if I slept less?


The above is not only true, it all happened in a span of less than three months!

Eventually, cooler heads prevailed and I did drop a few classes; either the subject matter was above or below my capacity, or it was simply delivered in an incompatible fashion (e.g. some instructors could have benefited from the MOOC on running MOOCs).


I recently finished my first two classes and got ‘With Distinction’ on both. You have to receive at least a 90% on the final grade to get this. They emailed me a color certificate signed by the professor along with the title of the class and school’s seal. I’m proud of these and will certainly almost frame them.

On a more serious note, I think we all need to pay close attention to this. We are at the edge of something big, the rubicon really; we’re witnessing an irreversible seismic change in our educational system.


In one of my Coursera classes, I opted for the ‘Signature Track’ (…). Though not always offered, it securely links your coursework to your identity, allowing you to prove to others that it was really you taking the class. When you sign up for this, it will prompt to use your webcam to take a picture of you holding your driver’s license and ask to submit a typing sample. Thereafter, before any quiz or project submission, it asks for your picture and a typing sample to confirm your identity. This $39 service feels like a great step towards legitimizing MOOCs.

Another note of interest, the “Machine Learning” class from Stanford University was taught by none other than Andrew Ng of the Stanford Autonomous Helicopter project: “which developed one of the most capable autonomous helicopters in the world” (Wikipedia) and, more importantly, one of the two founders of Coursera. Smart guy and tough class!


Most of the classes are labeled as ‘introductory’ and I think that is misleading. I don’t think I found any of them to be easy. These are taught by real professors from top schools and, apparently, aren’t into watering down their subject matter. Be prepared to do all the homework, turn in assignments on time, and even participate in the forums if you want to pass.

Of course all isn’t good, one critique is that every class I took had different grading systems, different measuring criteria, and for project-based classes, different submittal processes. I've seen quizzes, final exams, peer-reviewed projects, all using different UIs, wording and technology. This does get confusing and forces one through a new learning curve at the onset of every course. It would be nice if it was standardized. But this is to be expected; this is the start of a new and exciting movement, and these are some of the growing pains.


One class (that shall remain unnamed) had serious issues with its grading engine. You would have to wait over two hours to get the results of a submission, which was particularly unnerving when the weekly homework was broken into 6 parts, each related and each to be submitted sequentially. As you can imagine that made for a painful debugging process.


Another situation is customer service, a student misspelled his name when he signed up for the class and was trying to get his digital certificate rectified with his real name (good luck with that).

I will be the first to admit that in the excitement of this experiment, I bit off more than I could chew. I am genuinely interested in all the subjects I signed up for, but I am more interested in the overall MOOC experience and evolution. We can all see the writing on the wall, this, or something similar, is the future of education, where, unfortunately, brick and mortar schools will go the way of the horse and buggy (…).


Some say MOOCs are best suited for technology and science subjects, but I don’t agree with that assertion. Discussion forums (students are extremely generous with their time in helping others) and peer reviewing seem to naturally replace the need for teaching assistants. A minority of students will be more than willing to pay extra for tutoring or online chats with faculty, and thus, cover the entire schooling panorama.

So if you are interested in learning anything from arts, literature to technology and science, regardless of whether you hold a PhD or never finished high school, go for it! There’s undoubtedly a MOOC that will satiate your curiosity.

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