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MOOCs, A High School Teacher’s Perspective

If you haven’t heard of MOOCs yet, welcome to the education blogosphere, it’s nice to have you here!  The New Yorker recently wrote an article challenging the mission and execution of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) offered at places like Coursera, Udacity, EdX, and Khan Academy.  It so happens that I am currently enrolled in several MOOCs, and spent my summer off relearning calculus and statistics on Khan Academy.  So, I am thinking a lot about pedagogy as I work through the courses.

The Student Profile

One of the signals coming out of the MOOC movement is that they are not likely to replace traditional universities, rather they serve a different niche.  The students that are succeeding and finding value in MOOCs are adult learners.  Hey, that’s me!  I’m currently a public high school chemistry teacher, but I read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century at the beach this summer, and it lead me down a path toward reentering graduate school to become a data scientist.  There is a great graduate program at a local university where I live, and I hope to start next fall.  However, one of the prerequisites for the program is working knowledge of a programming language, which I do not have (yet).  Here I am, a professional with a family; I would like to do something new and challenging, but I am ill-prepared to enter a program in which I know I would be successful.  I could take classes at a community college, but even that price is a bit steep. (Did I mention I’m a public school teacher?) Enter the MOOC.

The Courses

After researching the best options available, I chose Coursera, because they are both offering the courses I want, and packaging them as a “specialization” progression.  The specialization is a collection of distinct courses, which follow a natural progression to build a larger skill set.  The progression ends with a capstone project/exam, and you get a special certificate acknowledging your accomplishments.  While you can take the courses for free, the specialization costs a nominal fee ($50/course).  I am learning the Python language through Rice University’s Fundamentals of Computing specialization, and I am learning the R language as well as other data analysis through Johns Hopkins’s Data Science specialization.  Both Python and R are widely used for data science.

Teacher Becomes Student, Can’t Stop Thinking Like a Teacher

Before I started, I thought about how I would expect a student to succeed in this type of environment.  I wanted to be well prepared before day 1, so I went to resources like codecademy and codeschool to build some fundamentals.  I was disappointed with the experience, and worried that the coursera experience would be more of the same.  The two sites mentioned look excellent.  They are slick, they are easy to navigate, they are easy to understand, but they are … easy.  Too easy.  They practically do the work for you, rarely is there the opportunity for failure and struggle.  This is the exact issue Konnikova in The New Yorker article mentions.  Without failure, learning never happens.  The student easily confuses fluency with mastery.  Fluency is when you drive to Ikea and park your car in the massive parking lot, look up at the sign, and say to yourself, “G2″ that’s easy to remember,” and it is.  Seven hours later you emerge from the Swedish monstrosity, confused, tired, a little bit excited, ready to go home and construct your loot.  You look out at the sea of cars, product precociously balanced in your arms (because you forgot they don’t give you bags), and you say to yourself, “[email protected]!*, where’s my car?”   That’s fluency, not mastery.  I need to master the programming language, not just be fluent.

Let me say right off that I have been extremely pleased with the Coursera courses.  They have not been easy.  Hard does not equal good, but the right kind of hard challenges the student to struggle with a problem, refer back to prior concepts, and seek external solutions.  Solving a problem that is that kind of hard is exhilarating.  Further, the frustration translates better to mastery rather than fluency.  However, it can go the wrong way.  Too hard, and a problem will drive the student to quit without fluency or mastery.  In both the courses I have taken, it is obvious the designers have thought carefully about this balance.

The New Yorker article complains that too little attention is given to the individual student (by necessity of the large numbers in enrollment); however, I have not found this to be the case.  If one is expecting to drop in on the professor/TA during office hours for one on one time, you certainly are going to be disappointed.  Rather than treating the large number of students as an obstacle, Coursera has leveraged the power of the internet to turn this into one of the most valuable parts of the course through message boards.  In the courses I have taken, there has been an active message board, where the professors, TAs, and other students participate regularly.  Every question that could be asked is posted somewhere and answered in the same place.  Questions are as diverse as the students.  Some threads cover fundamental questions, others are only appropriate for the highest achievers.  In this way, Coursera has also provided a solution for another complaint from the New Yorker article: balance.

If the course is too hard, students will give up and be driven away.  The completion rate for MOOCs is low, so some argue there is an incentive for designers to make the course easier to increase completion rates.  (The subtleties of the completion statistics deserves another post)  However, if a course is too easy, no actual learning happens, as happened with me as I worked through some of the prep resources mentioned above.  The discussion forums help solve this problem of balance by offering challenging material combined with a rich support structure.  In my experience, I have found myself on the boards to both seek help and offer help.

Being a Student has Made Me a Better Teacher

Being a student again has helped me to think about my own practice through the perspective of my students.  There are many ways in which this has influenced my teaching practice, but the most direct has been through the use of peer feedback.  In the courses I have taken, a significant portion of my grade has been earned by providing feedback to my peers.  I have not found the feedback that I’ve received from my peers all that helpful.  This has prevented me from incorporating peer feedback in my classroom in the past,because I’ve always reasoned that I, the teacher, can give the best feedback to my students.  But that is not where the value in peer feedback lies.  By using a rubric to evaluate others’ solutions to the same problems I have independently solved, I increased my own understanding.  Through evaluating others, I ultimately was comparing other solutions to my own, and therefore being more reflective.  Reflection is an important part of getting better, and it is something I do to become a better teacher.  Now, I am asking my students to evaluate their peers with the goal of forcing them to be more self-reflective.


MOOCs are not a panacea to the rising cost of higher education, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have value.  Konnikova raises some interesting challenges to the designers of MOOCs, but I am optimistic that they are solvable.  In their current iteration, I think they are already a success despite the reported completion rates.  You can see what I was able to do after 8 weeks of Python here (Click play in upper left, runs best in chrome or safari)  If you’ve had an experience with a MOOC, good or bad, we’d love to here about it.

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Keith is a high school Chemistry and Biology teacher for an urban public school district in an area of the country where pants are called “britches.” Though he has a degree in Percussion Performance, he teaches science because he thinks that a well honed skeptical toolbox is necessary for a more informed citizenry and a more just and prosperous society. When he’s not in the classroom, he spends all his time with his wife and two children, attempting to become the first person in the world to be both a perfect husband and father.


  1. November 13, 2014 at 9:43 am —

    I freaking love MOOC’s but I also love to learn. I like the fact that I can sign up for a bunch of courses that I don’t have to pay for and then learn as much as I want or have time for with a small amount of stress. I know, I know I can just pick up a book on the subject I may be interested in however, I need structure and I need to be able to discuss with others to learn something and that is what a MOOC gives me.
    Also, I think that Edx and Coursera do an outstanding job where online learning is concerned. A few of the schools I teach at do on line courses and they are executed horribly and people are paying for them, MOOC’s may replace some community college on line courses at some point if the colleges don’t wake up and retool their courses soon.

    BTW: I lose my car at IKEA too!! I think it is the Swedish meatball fog that does it.

  2. November 13, 2014 at 1:43 pm —

    The phenomenon you’re describing (learn as much as I have time for…) helps to explain the low completion rate. Of course there is a lower completion rate, when the consumer is not paying for anything. What is more telling is the completion rate after the “window shoppers” have resigned from the course after deciding they didn’t have time/wasn’t for them/not ready yet/look, squirrel!

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