University of Maryland to Offer Four Free Cour...

University of Maryland to Offer Four Free Courses Through Coursera (Photo credit: University of Maryland Press Releases)

A look into learning in 2013

By Alex Baer

Lenny Scaletta once famously asked, “What’s a mook?” To the fellas of Mean Streets, a “mook” is a loser or a schlub. But for many of us in 2013, “MOOCs” could be a saving grace.

What’s a “MOOC”, you ask? It stands for Massively Open Online Course, and is the newest addition to the e-learning community. In addition to providing assignments, readings, and videos, as in traditional distance education, MOOCs also offer open forums for interaction between students. Unlike online courses offered through a university, MOOCs are free, and open to anyone with Internet access.

Within the past year, MOOCs have skyrocketed in popularity. Coursera, whose founding happened just over a year ago, has over 3 million students, up from 1.7 million in November. Offering courses from over 30 universities from across the nation, including Duke, Columbia, and Princeton- Coursera’s clout grows stronger with each passing “semester”. My personal favorite is Canine Theriogenology for Dog Enthusiasts.

The SUNY system is also unveiling a new e-learning system. Dubbed “Open SUNY,” all online courses within the State University of New York system will be available to all of SUNY’s 468,000 students. Open SUNY is a drastically different system compared to its contemporaries, as it is not only built upon an existing public higher education network, it is also held to the same standards of that institution.

There are many benefits to a MOOC; as it is online, time zones and physical distances lose importance, learning happens in an informal environment, and you don’t need a degree. However, completion rates are usually incredibly low. Many courses see a sharp decline in student participation within the first week. Duke University knows this problem firsthand. In their first offered MOOC, “Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach,” almost 13,000 students registered. Just over half of those who registered watched at least one video, and only 346 students even attempted the final exam.

Not only do MOOCs suffer from the more frivolous types of academics, their very nature is proving to be a bit of a detriment. Although the Internet is the great equalizer of our day, making all users into potential MOOC students, it could also mask those who may not be completely ready for the level of work. As Coursera relies on students to grade one another, the grade you get from the single Mom in Portland might not be the same grade you would have gotten from that 17-year-old from Arlington.

In addition to MOOCs, there are other styles of e-learning. For instance, MIT, Harvard, Yale, and other prestigious universities have posted entire lecture series and entire courses in video lecture format on their channels, with no fee or membership needed, in everything from Boat Design to Game Theory to Robotics. Khan Academy is also a big name in the e-learning circuit, and has over 4,000 video lectures on everything from cosmology to healthcare.

The biggest drawback to MOOCs and the e-learning movement as a whole, is the lack of interaction. Services like Coursera have gone to great lengths to promote peer to peer activity, especially with respect to group discussions, but the convenience of online learning is also its Achilles heel. Despite your most valiant prayers and efforts, you can’t turn off and walk away from that Molecular Genetics lab, or your “dull-as-dishwater” Macroeconomics lecture.

MOOCs are easy come, easy go. You can sign up for as many as you please, but for the moment, your commitment is entirely up to you. This argument could also be said for traditional, brick-and-mortar post-secondary schools, but the repercussions are much heavier on that end. Free to sign up also means free to drop.

But whether you’re eagerly awaiting high school graduation, want to brush up on your organic chemistry, or just want to learn about the world around you, it’s just as easy as the click of a mouse. For an old-timer who remembers that phrase ending in “…opening up a book,” it’s a sobering reminder of the world we live in. But it is also a triumphant celebration of the drive to learn that burns within us all.