NY Times: The Year of the MOOC

I guess the concept of online learning has arrived – the NY Times has a feature dated Nov 2, 2012. It is a useful survey of the landscape of the MOOC startups. Here’s a fragment on Udacity, job placement: 

(…) Udacity has stuck close to its math and computer science roots and emphasizes applied learning, like “How to Build a Blog” or “Building a Web Browser.” Job placement is part of the Udacity package. “The type of skills taught in computer science, even at elite universities, can be very theoretical,” Dr. Stavens explains.

Udacity courses are designed and produced in-house or with companies like Google and Microsoft. In a poke at its university-based competition, Dr. Stavens says they pick instructors not because of their academic research, as universities do, but because of how they teach. “We reject about 98 percent of faculty who want to teach with us,” he says. “Just because a person is the world’s most famous economist doesn’t mean they are the best person to teach the subject.” Dr. Stavens sees a day when MOOCs will disrupt how faculty are attracted, trained and paid, with the most popular “compensated like a TV actor or a movie actor.” He adds that “students will want to learn from whoever is the best teacher.”

That means you don’t need a Ph.D. While there are traditional academics like David Evans of the University of Virginia, “Landmarks in Physics,” a first-year college-level course, is taught by Andy Brown, a 2009 M.I.T. graduate with a B.S. in physics. “We think the future of education is guys like Andy Brown who produce the most fun,” Dr. Stavens says. Mr. Brown’s course is an indie version of “Bill Nye the Science Guy” — filmed in Italy, the Netherlands and England, with opening credits for “director of photography” and “second camera and editor.”

Whether explaining what the ancients believed about the shape of the earth or, in Dr. Thrun’s statistics course, why you are unpopular, statistically speaking, voice-overs are as nonthreatening as a grade school teacher.

“You feel like you are sitting next to someone and they are tutoring you,” says Jacqueline Spiegel, a mother of three from New Rochelle, N.Y., with a master’s in computer science from Columbia who has enrolled in MOOCs from Udacity and Coursera. While taking “Artificial Intelligence,” she discovered she liked puzzling through assignments in online study groups.

Student feedback through brief, frequent quizzes depends upon an ability to assess the student responses. Correct answers on a math quiz are easier to verify than principals testing in say political economy. This is just one of the many innovation zones:

EdX’s M.I.T. roots show in its staff’s geeky passion for building and testing online tools. They collect your clicks. Feedback from the MOOC taught last spring by Dr. Agarwal (who, students learn, is obsessed with chain saws) revealed that participants would rather watch a hand writing an equation or sentence on paper than stare at the same paper with writing already on it.

The focus is on making education logical. “Someone who is consuming the course should know it is not serendipity that the course is chunked in a certain way, but that there is intentionality to sequencing video,” says Howard A. Lurie, vice president for content development.

With mini-notebook in hand, he has been leading the “daily stand-up” meeting (so called because attendees lean against walls) to keep course development on schedule. After one meeting, Lyla Fischer, a 2011 M.I.T. graduate and edX fellow, sat at her computer, a tag still dangling from the chair, and edited the answers for problem sets in Dr. Agarwal’s course. Last spring, students could download PDFs with brief answers. Now, she says, “there is a full explanation of how to do it, here are the steps,” right on the site.

“We are trying to use the magic of all the tool sets we have,” Mr. Lurie says. Students control how fast they watch lectures. Some like to go at nearly double the speed; others want to slow down and replay. Coming: If you get a wrong answer, the software figures out where you went wrong and offers a correction.


Assignments that can’t be scored by an automated grader are pushing MOOC providers to get creative, especially in courses that involve writing and analysis. Coursera uses peer grading: submit an assignment and five people grade it; in turn, you grade five assignments.

Check it out – the price is right!