MOOC road test

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was quoted on the BBC today saying that traditional bricks and mortar universities would lose out if they didn’t find a convincing way to respond to the new wave of online courses (sometimes called MOOCs – massive online open courses).

“The really interesting challenge for big-brand universities is whether they are going to move into that space. If we thought of universities as normal businesses we would say, ‘Will they be able to adapt to the PC revolution?’ It’s that kind of question. Will Harvard or MIT, Oxford or Cambridge, be able to adapt? Or will Microsoft come out of nowhere? “It’s going to be really fascinating to see it unfold.”

 I must say I have been having very similar thoughts. A few weeks ago I signed up for an MOOC being hosted by Coursera and organised by Dan Ariely of Duke University. The course, on behavioural economics, is a real eye opener. It is six weeks long (I’m just entering the sixth and final week) and involves video lectures, in-video quizzes, recommended and compulsory reading assignments, reading quizzes and a writing assignment. There are also guest lecturer appearances on video (with some lecturers from some pretty impressive institutions) and a comprehensive set of forums where the thousands of participants can ask questions and offer mutual support. 

Flickr picture courtesy missy and the universe

Other innovations which I thought really interesting were the weekly session with Dan Ariely (one hour long video q&a) where he answered questions submitted by the students, and the chance to participate in behavioural experiments – either through questionnaires  or in one case an interactive online person to person version of the Ultimatum Game where I was matched at random with another fellow student.

So far, I have found it extremely rich and rewarding. It isn’t the same as a university experience, obviously, and the one clear disadvantage of MOOCs is their lack of ability to award credible qualifications which would (currently?) be acceptable to employers. However, this may change and in the future employers may actually be more impressed by self-motivated self-learners who accumulate credits from this kind of offering, perhaps even valuing them more than qualifications from at least some more conventional universities – who knows. 

However, I agree with Jimmy Wales that, based on my limited experience, the universities are going to have to adopt at least some of these techniques if they are not to be challenged by new players with much more powerful and relevant learning experiences. 

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