Guest Post: MOOCs – Boon or Bane

While I’ve been knee-deep in Udacity’s CS-253 Web Development course, I’ve also been exchanging emails with Soumabha of Bytes and Banter. He, too, has been taking advantage of courses at Udacity and Coursera, so I asked him what he thought the pros and cons of these new educational systems are. Below are a few of his thoughts.

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SoumabhaSoumabha is a blogger, technology enthusiast and a freelancing marketing analyst. He is a computer science engineering student in BITS Pilani, one of the top colleges of India. His thirst for education and love for comics drives him to post on his blog Bytes and Banter
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One of the hottest debates raging in higher education right now regards the effectiveness of MOOCs. In case you are wondering what a MOOC is, the acronym stands for Massive Open Online Courses. These courses aim to target a global audience and generally reach them through video lectures or sharing slides and docs of their courseware. As the name implies, they are open to anyone, delivered online, and because they are free, they tend to get massive numbers of enrollees.

This concept of free online, video-based instruction was started by Khan Academy but it was Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig’s Artificial Intelligence course offered by Udacity which amassed a whooping 160,000 students that brought the word MOOC to the world. Then came the Stanford initiative, Coursera, along with MIT’s edX and now there are many more developing sites increasing by the day, while the early leaders add more courses and schools to their offerings regularly. But enough about the history; let us come to the main question – Will this technology actually change the face of education?

MOOCs have the potential to actually meet a person’s quest for knowledge, transforming what might only have been a dream to a reality. While some MOOC sites are better than others, the ‘big three’ – Coursera, Udacity and edX have already impacted a million lives by making available to the masses the video lectures of professors from Stanford, Princeton, The Wharton School, MIT and many others. I for one, coming from a middle-class Indian background, got exposure to wonderful subjects and it has changed my perspective a great deal.

MOOCs also enable students to participate in discussions with a wide variety of others with different backgrounds, tastes and from different cultures. Friendships are formed, and these new ‘classmates’ can provide that extra push you might need to keep progressing in a course. The MOOC services encourage collaboration and connection-making, as can be seen with the recent addition of the Google+ hangout feature in the course webpages.

One feature which is very useful for working people is the ability to watch and do exercises at their own sweet will. Udacity’s courses are self-paced, which enables a wide range of people to join and helps the office-goers to manage time in office and get quality education delivered right at their doorstep. Thus far, Coursera’s courses are offered only at specific times and students move through the material as a huge cohort. In time, perhaps their courses will run all the time, too.

As with any technology, there is never such a thing as all good and no bad, and MOOCs also have a downside, the most famous being plagiarism. I once searched for course reviews and to my horror I landed on a site where course questions and answers were publicly discussed in a particular forum. Many people post code for Computer Science courses in their ideone / github account and often forget to keep it private. This just invites the cheaters to use the working code and pass it on as their own. Many students have complained about the lack of security and awareness which leads to plagiarism.

The value of the certificates students receive is also a big concern. While these courses are often the same courses offered at their brick and mortar schools, MOOC participants receive no college credit, and instead get a certificate of completion. When my friend took his Algorithms by Tim Roughgarden certificate to a placement interview, he was clearly told that these online certificates would not be recognized. Hiring companies realize it could have been anyone sitting in front of the computer, so the MOOC websites are finding it really difficult to increase their certificate value in the corporate world.

Finally, will MOOCs actually replace the in-school and the hands on teaching approach? Well that is debatable. There are many advantages of the MOOC system but the feeling of studying in a small class of 40 is something entirely different and maybe even irreplaceable. The special attention of a teacher, a structured 6-month timeline with written exams and the individual monitoring of not only subject-wise knowledge but also the behavioral aspects of a student work are quite essential.

Although MOOC services have a long way to go, nevertheless it is a huge step taken to bring education to every house (or at least the ones which have a computer inside). The development in this field can only result in some good and as the hurdles are crossed, this new way of teaching will continually improve.

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