MOOCs, Coursera, and friends

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) turn the internet back toward education from entertainment. Multiple universities have toyed with the idea of posting classes online. MIT was one of the initial pioneers, publishing multiple lectures online with their “open courseware” initiative. The whole idea of open courseware opened a fairly significant debate with academics denouncing the quality of instruction or impacts to research.

Coursera takes the earlier MOOC initiatives and builds on them. Partnering with University programs, several extension or continuing ed classes have been published. I ran across the site while visiting a forum, with multiple people agreeing to jump in to a single class.

Let’s take a look at a few common questions I’ve seen posed about the MOOC experience.

Is it effective?

I completed the course “Write Like Mozart”, an introduction to classical music theory and composition. While I’ve played piano for a long while, theory has always been my weak point. Overrall, I left the course knowing a lot more about chord progressions, classical composition style guidlines, and an applied knowledge to several terms.

Effective? In this class, definitely. However, I do feel that the MOOC format (being “open”), inherently creates difficulties for those offering the courses. Write Like Mozart was largely INTRODUCTORY material, not a detailed dive into classical theory. This seems a common thread to all of the Coursera offerings. There is a complete lack of a development track for more complicated subjects.

What is the quality?

Courses at Coursera seem to be fairly over the map. Some classes are really awesome, some seem poor at best. The “Write Like Mozart” and Berklee School Of Music series were really well designed and implemented. I visited a few of the engineering classes, and wasn’t all that impressed.

Most courses have some fairly substantial weight behind them. The instructors themselves are qualified. However, some just aren’t really good. I see a mix of extremely active, involved teachers, and completely hands off. Each class has a different feel. I see a significant amount of community around a few. These are the gems. Then, there’s a few that leave me scratching my head.

The ones I’ve been working through or “auditing” have been very much worth the time.

What about interaction with other students?

In college, I joined a sum total of 2 study groups. And one, simply because there was a girl. Funny enough, I think I actually had significantly MORE interaction with other students through the MOOC format. Now, this wasn’t face to face, but through typed messages on a message board. Is that the same quality of idea exchange? I’d say it’s different. Each has some benefits.

College can definitely be significantly more social than the MOOC format.

Won’t Research Funding Die if this takes off!?

I’ve seen this objection from several academics. If MOOCs become popular, will students stop going to real college – instead opting for free online equivalents? Frankly, maybe the university systems NEEDS some house cleaning.

I’d need to drop at least a thousand dollars for the priviledge of taking a single college class. Much less gathering the credits I need to graduate. What horror – that information can be shared online for free!

Really though, I don’t think these sorts of classes provide the full support structure that an actual university does. And if they did, you’d see a bigger dollar figure required to work through them. I hope these sites being pushing full degrees. It’d reveal just how grotesque the current price of education is.

Real life classes still have an edge. There’s nothing that compares to asking a professor questions directly, visiting during office hours, or being able to interact with a full class. Also, there’s something to the idea of a SMALLER class. It’s easy to get lost in the crowd.


I’m a fan of Coursera overall. The site feels well designed, the classes are engaging, and the community is positive and supportive. I don’t think I’d compare it to my time in college. Of course, as an adult my goals are different. I hope more sites like Coursera pop up over time. After all, it’s what the internet was built for.

For those interested, my final project in “Write Like Mozart” is open for listening or viewing

— Fate

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