A Pioneer in Online Education Tries a MOOC

October 01, 2012

MOOOOOOOOC! Surely "massive open online course" has one of the ugliest acronyms of recent years, lacking the deliberate playfulness of Yahoo (Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle) or the droll shoulder shrug suggested by the word "snafu" (Situation Normal, All Fouled Up).

I'm not a complete neophyte to online learning. Back in 1999, I led the start-up team for Fathom, one of the earliest knowledge networks, in partnership with Columbia University and other institutions here and abroad, and I'm a board member of the Apollo Group. So I was understandably curious about these MOOC's. With fond memories of a thrilling virtual trip a dozen years ago to Ephesus, Turkey, via a multimedia-rich, self-paced course created by a professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, I decided to check out a MOOC for myself.

Coursera, a new company that offers free online courses through some of the world's best-known universities, had the widest and most impressive selection. I blocked my ears to the siren call of science fiction, poetry, and history and opted for something sober: "Health Policy and the Affordable Care Act." It's taught by the Emanuel brother who isn't the Chicago mayor or the Hollywood superagent—Ezekiel Emanuel, an M.D. and Ph.D. who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. For the next eight weeks, I was part of a noisy, active, earnest, often contentious, and usually interesting group of students. There didn't seem to be any way to gauge the number enrolled, but I learned about the students from a discussion group. There were quite a few lawyers, doctors, and other health-care professionals. Some were struggling with personal health disasters and wanted tools to predict how the health-care act would affect their futures. Some were international researchers doing comparative studies. Others were higher-education folks like me, testing the MOOC waters.

The quality and format of the discussions were immediate disappointments. A teaching assistant provided some adult supervision, but too many of the postings were at the dismal level of most anonymous Internet comments: nasty, brutish, and long. The reliance on old-fashioned threaded message groups made it impossible to distinguish online jerks from potential geniuses. I kept wishing for a way to break the large group into small cohorts self-selected by background or interests—health-care professionals, for instance, or those particularly interested in the economics of health care. There was no way to build a discussion, no equivalent to the hush that comes over the classroom when the smart kid raises his or her hand.

If you believe the sage's advice that we learn much from our teachers and colleagues but most of all from our students, MOOC's will be far more effective when we are able to learn from one another.

Not surprisingly, enterprising MOOCsters are already organizing themselves outside the online classroom, using social-media tools like Google Hangouts and Facebook. In New York, students schedule meetings in Starbucks; in Katmandu, a group relies on Meetup to get together. Some course providers are facilitating external interaction: Udacity has offered Global Meetup Day with Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford University computer scientist (and Udacity co-founder) known for his course on artificial intelligence. Coursera threw a giant barbecue in Menlo Park, Calif., complete with volleyball and beanbag tossing.

Of course, peer learning takes you only so far: At some point, somebody has to know something about the subject. Professor Emanuel was a presence only in videos, but these were uniformly excellent. The cameras caught him walking briskly around an actual lecture hall, and I liked the presence of shadowy classmates sitting in Philadelphia, as if this were happening in real time. The videos were pleasantly peppered with pop-up quizzes. No embarrassment for the wrong answer, and I was ridiculously pleased at correctly guessing that the proportion of health-care costs in the United States that goes to prescription drugs is only 10 percent. For those in a rush, watching at twice normal speed is sort of fun— don't you secretly wish you could sit through some meetings at double speed?

I was a faithful student for a few weeks, until I fell prey to my worst undergraduate habit, procrastination—only now my excuses were far more sophisticated. I have to finish a manuscript! I have a board meeting! I have to meet my mother's new cardiologist!

In a MOOC, nobody can hear you scream.

I might have abandoned the charming Professor Emanuel altogether had the Supreme Court's decision to uphold President Obama's health-care program not injected the spice of real-time action into the discussion and refreshed my interest.

Somewhere between the videos and the readings and the occasional dip into the discussion groups, I found myself actually learning. I was particularly interested in how malpractice contributes to health-care costs but was instructed by my professor that the potential savings there amounted to mere "pencil dust." And who knew about the proposed National Medical Error Disclosure and Compensation Act of 2005, which would have reduced the number of malpractice cases, accelerated their resolution, and lowered costs by two-thirds?

To earn a certificate, I would have had to submit several essays for a grade, and I stopped short of that (see excuses above). Essays are peer-graded, and it won't surprise anybody who has ever taught undergraduates to hear that the student evaluations can be fierce. On the discussion boards, there was considerable discussion of grade deflation, plagiarism, and cheating. Alas, academic sins do follow us into the land of MOOC's, despite a nicely written honor code. Bad behavior in any classroom, real or virtual, should be no more surprising than gambling in Casablanca. In fact, brace yourself for a breathtaking new form of voluntary identity sharing: Your fake student avatar, now available for a small fee, will take your class for you.

Looking back, I suppose Fathom was a proto-MOOC, and I confess to some surprise that the Coursera format has evolved little beyond our pioneering effort of a decade ago. Yet when it came time to assess the course, I found myself rating it pretty highly, and concluded that aside from the format, the failings were mostly mine, for lack of focus. Like many MOOC students, I didn't completely "finish" the course. However, the final evaluations seemed mostly enthusiastic. From the comments, most of the students seemed to find the course long on substance: "comprehensive," "a good balance between the law, policy, and economics," "rich with multiple perspectives on health-policy issues."

Now, I could have read a book or done this on my own. But you could say the same thing about most education. A course is not a book but a journey, led by an expert, and taken in the company of fellow travelers on a common quest for knowledge. My MOOC had those elements, albeit in a pretty crude form.

You'd have to live under a rock not to know that crushing student debt, declining state support, and disruptive technologies have made it imperative to look at new models for teaching. The competitive landscape for higher education is changing every day. China recently declared the goal of bringing half a million foreign students to its shores by 2020, and is investing in programs friendly to Americans and other international students. American MOOC's may point the way to retaining the best students and faculty in the world, while adding the lively and collaborative components of technology-enhanced teaching and learning.

It is true that nobody yet has a reasonable business plan for these courses, and there is concern over completion rates and whether colleges are "giving away the farm," as a recent MIT alumni-magazine article put it. It is not hard to anticipate the end of free and the start of the next stage: fee-based certificate programs built around MOOC's. But for now, the colleges leading those efforts are making relatively modest—and rare—investments in research and development. Their faculty members are excited about the opportunity to experiment. Let's give this explosion of pent-up innovation in higher education a chance to mature before we rush to the bottom line.

It is too soon to declare MOOC's either a silly fad or a silver bullet. But it is not too soon to declare 2012 the year that the public finally understood the potential for adult learning on a global scale. When a 10-week survey in modern and contemporary American poetry attracts more than 20,000 students around the world—as one offered by Coursera apparently just did—something important is happening.

Ann Kirschner is university dean of the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York, and author of the forthcoming Lady at the O.K. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earp, to be published next year by HarperCollins.