“MOOC-ing” around with higher education

If you work in journalism or academia, you don’t have to listen very hard to hear a big buzz around the very latest trend in learning. It’s MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. They are free online university courses from the world’s most elite universities and it is easier to register and take part in some of them than it is to sign up for a new email account.

Earlier this month, the New York Times declared this “The Year of the MOOC” after a handful of new companies and organizations surged in prominence in the last six to nine months. This in turn sparked a flurry of articles wondering if this was the end of higher education.

The truth is online learning itself is not new. Even MOOCs aren’t new. The non-profit Khan Academy claims on its website to have delivered 212 million lessons from its collection of 3,000 free, self-serve instructional videos since it launched in 2006.

But in general over the years the content quality and ease of use of online instruction has been a mixed bag. I recently spent a couple of hours trying to install and load a program required to take part in an online course about new trends in social media for journalists. The program didn’t install properly even after a number of tries and gummed up my operating system until I succeeded in removing it from my hard drive. This kind of thing can be irritating if there is a course fee, especially if it’s a big fee. (Note – the course owner has not acknowledged my emails requesting a refund).

Good functionality, easy-to-use and free are just the starting points though. What is interesting about these new courses and the companies facilitating them is that they are truly massive, with tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of people registering from around the world. And what’s even more interesting is how many of the big elite players are jumping in and how quickly.

So, being an eternal student and change junky myself, I decided to jump in and test the MOOCy waters. I created accounts on the organizations mentioned by the New York Times and have signed myself up for some free learning.

This is just a first take, but here’s what I found.

Coursera, 33 universities, 204 courses.

This is a for-profit venture with $16 million in venture capital funding and a business plan to generate revenue, sort of. The Chronicle of Higher Education quotes co-founder Andrew Ng as saying the company is looking to make money from charging a small fee for a course certificate and from connecting qualified students with companies looking to hire. Ng admitted to Chronicle reporter Jeffrey Young that this is unlikely to bring in big bucks. This is a great story from last summer, by the way, and worth reading in full. Young got hold of a copy of the University of Michigan’s contract with Coursera and has highlighted its most interesting bits about business planning and revenue share.

Profit or not, the platform is lovely. It’s simple and very fast and easy to use. Sign up with your name and password and you are done, able to register for any of the courses. There is no software to download or install. The professors vie for your attention with introductory videos about the course and how it will be taught. Different courses have different degrees of platform-rich tools such as group collaboration online, quizzes, interactive features and discussion groups. Most classes seem to have just one professor (presumably with a team of teaching assistants), though a number of them have two professors or even teams.

After reviewing all my options in categories ranging from computer science to business management, poetry to equine nutrition, I settled on “E-Learning and Digital Cultures” taught by a team of professors at the University of Edinburgh. The five-week course starts at the end of January, and the promo promises a movie tie-in – “The Matrix. The course has its own hashtag, so I am anticipating a very social experience.

Here’s what my course looks like:


edX, four universities, nine courses.
This is a non-profit created in partnership by MIT and Harvard University who, according to Wikipedia, have poured $30 million into the project. The other two partner universities are Berkeley and the University of Texas who have just come on board. The nine courses are all highly technical: Introduction to Solid State Chemistry, Introduction to Computer Science, Foundation of Computer Graphics, Quantitative Methods in Clinical & Public Health Research are four examples.


As with Coursera, creating a profile on edX is easier than signing up to a new social media site. Registering for a course is one click. Once you register you get to interact with classmates by posting a video hello. I put my name on the registration for the intro to computer science course which allowed me access to all the materials even though the course ended last week. I quickly glanced through the student hello videos, and they were from right around the world. A number of couples seemed to be taking the course together. I saw some instructional videos, a chat room and slide shows.

After poking around, I unregistered myself from the computer science course with one click of the button. I’ll be interested to see if edX offers anything in the humanities as it goes forward.

Udacity is a private organization developed by Stanford professors, also with venture capital funding. It has 19 courses listed (as of today’s counting), mostly math and computer sciences. I signed up for the introductory statistics course, which is self-directed and looks pretty user-friendly.

Below is co-founder Sebastian Thrun introducing my statistics class. You have to admit he makes it look like it’s going to be fun. How can you go wrong with Lego?


Students can start and finish at their own pace. This is different from Coursera, which takes students through a six-week program in real time.

I’ve also registered for a course with the Knight Foundation for Journalism in the Americas, which has created its own platform using open-source software company Moodle.org. Like Coursera, this course starts in January and lasts five weeks. It is created and led by the award-winning graphics journalist from Spain, Alberto Cairo.


This is probably a good place to mention that charisma plays a strong role when it comes to   MOOCs which are a bit like education as performance art. Professors need to have stage presence and/or really dynamic audio/visual support tools to make these kinds of courses work best.

What will happen next? The New York Times reported that only about five per cent of students actually finish the courses so I may be just another statistic, but I’m going to try this self-directed Udacity course before Christmas. In January, I’ll take the Coursera and Knight courses and see if I can follow through the five weeks on both. But even if I, and my 95% compatriots, don’t quite finish, access and exposure to these top-of-the line courses have to be good.


About Katie King

Literary Translator, Journalist, Media Professional, Professor. Currently working toward PhD in Hispanic Studies at the University of Washington.
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2 Responses to “MOOC-ing” around with higher education

  1. Katie this is fascinating – just saved it to read in detail – and I look forward to the update. P

  2. Pingback: The Growth of the Virtual Campus « Philippa Thomas Online

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