This past September the Cornell Forum on Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) hosted Daphne Koller and Anant Agrawal for remote video presentations about their respective organizations. Coursera, launched by Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, is a for-profit consortium of over 30 institutions of higher learning with the goal of offering the world’s best courses online for free. EdX, headed by Anant Agrawal, is a not-for-profit that desires to reach out to students of all backgrounds and research how students learn. In her TED Talk, Daphne Koller explains her motivation behind Coursera with a quote from Thomas Friedman: “Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary.” The surging cost of tuition and overcrowding which already ravages schools needs a solution, and Massively Open Online Courses may be just that. Both Coursera and EdX are indeed MOOCs that have served hundreds of thousands of people, but they differ in a significant way. Coursera is for-profit, while edX is not-for-profit.
This difference in approach has already led to some polarity among prospective member institutions. According to the Chancellor of UC Berkeley, Robert J. Birgeneau: “Ultimately, our faculty will decide where they want to put courses up online, but we find that edX has values and methodologies very closely aligned with ours at Berkeley, so our institutional preference would be to use edX.” This polarity is well founded, because there has been much debate about whether MOOCs are worth the investment in infrastructure. Some have warned that especially for a not-for-profit MOOC, the costs will draw resources away from the main institution and lead it on an unsustainable path. Coursera has a direct plan about how to make profit for its member institutions by charging for certificates. This has led some to argue that Coursera is no different from the University of Phoenix for example, which also offers courses online with discussion boards and videos. Though Coursera and the University of Phoenix are still different because all Coursera courses are available without a tuition, unlike the University of Phoenix.
Let’s dive into the details about what a typical Coursera course consists of. Lectures are available as videos, and quizzes prompt the student to reason about a question to gauge understanding. These quizzes are graded with an automated system, as long as they consist of numerical or otherwise objective answers. Peer grading and self grading is utilized for non objective answers. There is a Question and Answer forum where students can answer each other’s questions at any hour. Coursera also encourages local study groups, allowing students to have a connection with their work that transcends the computer screen.
Daphne Koller noted that peer grading and self grading correlates surprisingly well with official grading, as long as students are incentivised correctly. In the case of peer grading, this shows the wisdom of the crowd. In the case of self grading, this exhibits a game where the players are the students, the instructors should make it so that reporting one’s true grade is the best strategy.
Whereas the peer and self grading may be an experience unique to Coursera or alternative curricula, every student taking INFO 2040 has experienced the 24 hour Question and Answer forum through Piazza. Allows for students to post questions, and for the Instructor as well as other students to answer. Instructors can then endorse student’s answers, and mark questions as good. This is interesting from a Network perspective because Piazza makes a distinction in the authority of students and the authority of teachers. This is a very logical thing to include for a Question and Answer forum to have, because if some student starts broadcasting false information, the instructors should be able to tell other students to stay clear of bad responses. On the other hand, there are examples of less hierarchical environments working very well.
In his TED Talk, Sugata Mitra shows how kids can teach themselves how to use a desktop computer without any supervision. It is part of his goal of “minimally invasive education”, where students are free to explore ideas on their own in an unsupervised environment. With this kind of environment, one might expect the more kids teaching each other the better, but this might not always be the case.
One of the challenges that Education faces today is the “two sigma problem”, which Daphne Koller explains as the idea that students who have personalized instruction with an instructor do better than those students taught with a traditional lecture by two standard deviations. With MOOCs, we see that technology connects the teacher with all the students in a way that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. This online technology scales for any number of students, and each student gets a personalized way to learn the material based on their interest and aptitude. By allowing students to engage in active learning, MOOCs can increase the achievement of students by moving toward fully personalized instruction.
Finally, one might ask: Why has there been so much publicity about MOOCs recently, when similar online learning content has been around for a while? Ultimately, it is the social element of online learning like videos and real time Question and Answer forums. These haven’t been technically possible until a few years ago, so these developments have made all the difference in bringing Online Education to a tipping point where the more teachers and students who participate, the better it gets for everyone involved.