MOOC vs. iTunes: Auditing vs. “Taking” Classes

In a traditional college setting, there is a distinction between taking a class (which includes fulfilling all course requirements) and simply auditing it (i.e., just sitting through the lectures).  In the world of MOOCs and other free online classes, however, this difference is not so clear.

For most “brick-and-mortar” (and even online) degree-granting colleges and universities have standardized their courses to a certain extent, meaning that courses at the same credit level generally require comparable amounts of class time (divided into lectures, discussion sessions, lab periods and other components specific to the course).

In other words, students enrolling in a full-credit physics or Shakespeare course at most universities can expect to devote comparable amounts of time to fulfilling the classroom requirements for those courses.  Workload beyond the classroom (such as reading, writing and other forms of homework) and difficulty of tests and other graded assignments can vary widely, depending on the teacher and subject matter.  But a rough equivalence allows schools to assign different credit levels to different courses (giving half the credit for a class that meets for 1.5 hours per week vs. one that meets for three, for instance).

The fact that credit is awarded for performing all of the work in a class also allows some schools to offer an auditing option for certain classes, giving students the option to just sit through lectures, but not do the rest of the work assigned in the class, for zero credit.

In the emerging world of free college-level courses (MOOCs and otherwise), such standards do not yet exist which leads to questions regarding what constitutes a “true” college-equivalent online learning experience.

To take one example from my Degree of Freedom Freshman year curriculum, one of the science classes in my lineup is Life in the Universe, an iTunes U recording of Ohio State University’s Astronomy 141 taught by Professor Richard Pogge.  Like most iTunes offerings, this course consists of just lectures (in this case, recorded audio lectures from the actual class Professor Pogge teachers to his Ohio State students).

On one level, my enrollment in this course should be considered an audit since the only things on offer from iTunes are lectures (no reading assignments, no homework and no assessments).  Which means learning from Professor Pogge should be considered a “weaker” auditing option in contrast to a similar course (such as University of Rochester Professor Adam Frank’s Highlights of Modern Astronomy MOOC offered by Coursera).

But notice that the Coursera course runs for just four weeks.  And unless that course breaks from the Coursera formula I’ve grown use to of 1-1.5 hours of online lecture per week, this means Frank will end up delivering 4-6 hours of lectures during his classes four week run.  In contrast, Life in the Universe from iTunes includes over 44 lectures making up more than 35 hours of learning material.

But, don’t MOOC courses (like Coursera’s Big Questions class) provide all of the other class components that an iTunes course lacks (such as reading assignments, homework and graded assessments)?

Well yes and no.  Of the traditional MOOC classes I’ve enrolled in, some (like Wesleyan’s Modernism class) include assigned readings while others (like Duke’s Argumentation course) do not.  And as we’ll be discussing next week, other class elements such as homework and graded assignments have serious issues in environments where scale means scoring by trained, human graders (such as a professor or his or her assistance) is not possible.

So claiming that a full-featured MOOC (whatever that means) can close the gap between less than 10 hours of lectures vs. more than 30 through non-lecture materials of questionable quality and validity would be a hard case to make.

And to confound matters even further, since most iTunes classes are recorded from genuine, live course lectures, resources such as reading and homework assignments for those classes are often available for those wanting to do them.  For instance, Astronomy 141 has a web site that includes homework exercises (which I actually did while taking this class).  So, again, using the availability of non-lecture course material to distinguish auditing from taking a course becomes even more challenging.

Now one can make the case that both MOOCs and other types of free learning (including not just iTunes, but lecture-based courses from companies such as Great Courses and Modern Scholar – many of which are available free at public libraries) lack the rigor of traditional classroom environments, an issue that we will be exploring, discussing and debating for the rest of this year.

But for purposes of this project, I am choosing to declare that any class providing comparable amounts of learning (in whatever form that might take) to a traditional, full-semester college-level course should be assigned a full credit, and anything less a fraction of a credit.  And as a way of formalizing that choice, I’ve decided that for lecture-only classes (from iTunes and elsewhere), twelve hours of lecture will constitute my dividing line between a full-credit and half-credit course.

Do you agree with this analysis and formula?  If so (or not), I’ll be interested in hearing your opinions.

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4 Responses to MOOC vs. iTunes: Auditing vs. “Taking” Classes

  1. Laurence Cuffe March 18, 2013 at 10:05 am #

    I have taken part in a number of MOOC.s including the famous stanford AI one. I think of MOOCS as being more analogous to an enhanced multimedia textbook, than to a formal course. As such, I like the ability to take up a textbook, and if it doesn’t suit me, put it down. I have just completed two online courses in eLearning. The first #OLDSMOOC was run by a number of people I admire in digital learning and promised a lot. However when I took part in it it turned out to be just an open access distance learning course run on a schedule which implied that a student was free to complete work on a daily basis. For me, the asynchronous nature of MOOC’s means that they can fit into my teaching schedule. There were other technical issues with the platform it was offered on, such as having my contributions to online discussions being held for moderation as I was not a frequent contributor, and then never appearing. The delivery platform used, is a somewhat elderly one used by the Open university in the UK but is starting to show its age.
    The other MOOC from Coursera, on Digital culture and eLearning, was one which I had signed up for with a passing interest intending to just dip in. This course was well constructed, and attracted a wide and varied student population who got very involved in the online discussions.
    In the event I completed the course I intended to audit, and audited the course I intended to complete.

    So in conclusion, I think your formula makes sense, but I also think that the concept of a MOOC as being a traditional course equivalent may not be the most appropriate mapping of this new artifact on the educational landscape.

  2. CJ Fearnley March 30, 2013 at 5:11 am #

    Simply auditing a course (watching the videos only: which I have done on many occasions myself), is definitely not equivalent to a college course. Somehow or other, you need to reflect on the material to get a real academic benefit. One technique that I have tried in video-only courses is writing little summaries to Facebook (my review of lecture 2 in Stanford’s Human Behavioral Biology course). I’m not sure that such notetaking is “good enough” for 3 or 4 credit hours. But I know that just watching the videos does not cut it!

    I do believe that auditing courses is worth a lot: you learn the basics of a subject, you learn some solid if superficial content, and you get a valuable feeling for the subject (“the lay of the land”). That said, in my experience doing on-line courses, I think taking quizzes and passing exams doesn’t give me as good a command for the material as I get by writing my summaries to Facebook. It is very important to discuss the material of a course to really learn it. So I think effective on-line discussion effort can be worth more than taking quizzes and exams. But who decides if your on-line discussion was effective enough?

    Finally, I would suggest that it is possible, with on-line courses, to get more out of them than one can in a bricks-and-mortar setting. In a self-paced course (like at MIT OCW), by taking more quizzes and more exams than a “real” student would take, it is possible to really thoroughly develop your mastery. Then write an article or blog post and the depth of learning can easily exceed the bricks-and-mortar experience. But equivalencies are nigh-near impossible (for me) to imagine. For example, should we count the essay I wrote about Open Yale Courses “Dante in Translation” as mastery? That course provides a sample exam which I would have flunked if I were a Yale student (the exam was really hard and I didn’t study for it). But I did get an awful lot out of that course and writing that essay. 0, 1, 2, or 3 credit hours: what would you give me for that effort?

    I think 12 hours as the cut off between a full and 1/2 credit course is reasonable. I agree that a lot of Coursera course are “lite”. Some schools have15 week semesters while others have a 10 week quarter system (like ESS 15: Blue Planet, Oceanography at UCLA which although it is ostensibly video-only can be easily supplemented with practice exams and downloaded slides from Edwin Schauble’s course homepage (however, beware that the current slides differ somewhat from the ones included in the videos!!!). In my experience, to thoroughly learn the material in an MIT OCW course is probably worth maybe four times as many credits as a course taken at a school like UCLA (if Schauble’s course is any indication). Given these discrepancies, I don’t think brick-and-mortar schools are easily comparable either!

    Frankly, I think the nature of the supplementary activities you do for a video-only course makes a world of difference. The right supplementary activities done the right way can turn such a course into a mastery that is not even possible in the bricks and mortar world. Yet, if you just watch the videos, I don’t think it is a comparable learning experience to the bricks and mortar experience.

    Another interesting issue are the objectives that the student brings to the effort. My problem with the Dante course mentioned above is that I didn’t want to know the text of the poem well enough to be able to identify the speaker and scene from a short quote (which was required for the practice midterm). So my objectives were in a different direction from what the quiz demanded. That was a big problem for me when I earned my BA: I often butchered the first exam because my interests and objectives did not align with the instructors. One thing I really like about Coursera is that usually I can take the quizzes and exams multiple times. That allows me to recalibrate my approach “in time”. But in a self-paced course, how do you account for this problem? Should my interests and objectives be given more weight? Or were my instructors in college justified in placing strict standards on the approach required for their field? How can a student in a self-paced class judge if they are approaching the material correctly? Does it matter?

  3. Paul Morris June 8, 2013 at 9:56 am #

    I find it very difficult to get to a handle on this determination of credit equivalence. This is in part because I’m British and we don’t use the ‘credit hour’ idea and in part because my own academic background is non-conventional anyway having spent very little time in an actual ‘bricks and mortar’ university.

    My first degree was earned through the Open University here in the UK which teaches entirely by distance means (and has done so for the last fifty years) so the distinction between classroom and other study time was not meaningful – the OU works on a points system – a ‘full credit’ 60 point course would take a full academic year to complete (typically thirty weeks) at fifteen hours per week of study time. Half credit courses return 30 points and require around 7-8 hours per week. this system has changed a little in recent years with many half credit courses being offered twice per year with the expectation of 15 hours study for 15 weeks. A full honours degree (BA/BSc) requires 360 points (ie six full credit courses) with some stipulations as to level.

    The UK universities credit transfer scheme known as CATS (Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme) which operates on the points basis described above for the OU. There is also a European scheme ECTS (European Credit Transfer Scheme) which has points which have twice the value (ie 2 CATS points = 1 ECTS point).

    Now how does all this tie in with considering MOOC values? Well, firstly, it gets away from the distinction between classroom and ‘other’ study time. For example, at the time I undertook my degree with the OU there were no lectures on most of my courses – it was virtually all written study – but the degree was fully accredited.

    Even for full time students on campus face to face study times vary greatly – one friend who studied Fine Arts had a total of one hour per week ‘required’ classroom time which was a weekly seminar with has supervising professor (and mainly comprised tea and biscuits). That is not to say that he didn’t study but it was virtually all self-directed or studio time.

    By contrast, another friend studying Business Management has thirty hours per week of mandatory lectures, seminars and tutorials but far less expectation of independent work. I would look to determine a course’s weight based on the total number of hours expected to complete it rather than on how many hours of lectures were required.

    15 x 30 = 450 hours = 60 CATS points

    A typical MOOC course:

    5 weeks x 9 hours = 45 hours = 6 points

    Since the UK scheme counts 120 points as equalling one year of full time study that would suggest 20 five week courses would equal a year’s study. If we think about that it seems about right, three course simultaneously would estimate at around thirty hours and would take some 35 weeks to complete – a good match to the UK academic year anyway.

    Looking at, who are kind enough to map out full degree programmes with time estimates for each course, we will see that most of their courses estimate around 100-120 hours, which would come in at around 1/8 of an academic year. Since their four year programmes have around 30 courses this would map nicely to the English system (if we ignore the Gen Ed requirement which doesn’t exist here).

    So, overall, I would say that courses should be weighted based on total estimated study time on the basis of around 900 hours per full academic year or 2700 hours for a typical English three year degree or 3600 for a US-style four year degree.

    A final footnote is that throughout this I have accepted the ‘official’ estimates of time required. This is inevitable as students actual time to complete will vary depending on background and ability. Where there is no estimate, as with iTunes lecture courses supplemented by other material then I guess you need to make your own estimates. I have also looked only at volume of content rather than level, which is also significant but less easy to appraise from the information provided with many courses.

  4. James April 2, 2015 at 12:10 pm #

    I’ll tell you right now that Saylor is a complete waste of time. Any certificates already earned don’t show up now since they changed their platform. The move to a new platform and new type of certificate negates everything you have done no matter how many courses you have completed. This is crazy and very hard to navigate. Either they fix their site or they disappear. Would that matter? Complete waste of time. Go to Coursera or EdX instead. I bet even Paul Morris posting here now has no certificates. Saylor’s rating has gone from good to poor, imo.

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