MOOCs in 2015

Now that we’re a good three years past “The Year of the MOOC,” I decided to see how far we’ve come since the New York Times named 2012 after the massive open online course by looking at what it would take to put together a new One Year BA curriculum using free-learning resources available two years after I started and a year after finishing my original Degree of Freedom program.

Keep in mind that I have no intention of actually spending 2015 in the same intense learning environment I enjoyed in 2013.  But I was curious how far MOOCs have come during the year since I left school in terms of their scope, breadth and nature.

To kick off this thought experiment, I’ll be using the same framework that mapped out my 2013 “degree,” seeing if it’s possible to take enough free courses (32) over the course of a year (eight per three-month “year”) that would match the distribution and degree requirements of a four-year liberal-arts BA program.

Distribution requirements mean that of the first 16 courses that would be taken from January through June, ten would have to be spread out among the sciences, social sciences and humanities.  And finishing a major by the end of 2015 would translate to taking ten courses in a chosen field, at least four of which are taught at the intermediate or advanced level.  And for my hypothetical major, I choose ancient and medieval Western history (just to see how well MOOCs are doing outside of their still-biggest niche of computer science).

With those rules in place, the first thing I noticed is that there are indeed more courses to choose from at the start of 2015 than there were two years ago – certainly enough to make meeting distribution requirements a breeze.  But more does not translate to the exponentially greater number of MOOCs people were predicting during the era of high (perhaps irrational) expectations over massive open learning.

Partly, this s a result of academics coming to realize just how much of an investment (in terms of time and money) MOOCs can be, which translates to scholars and schools making rational cost/benefit decisions before joining a MOOC consortium (vs. just jumping onto a bandwagon).  So while Coursera’s catalog now comes close to 900 classes (up from 400+ a couple of years ago), and edX’s offerings have also come close to doubling, the total number of MOOCs still falls short of what might be offered at a decent-size state university.

Also, I think it’s safe to now scratch Udacity off the list of MOOC providers, if only because their “pivot” towards professional training means their free offerings now pretty much just consist of the material needed to audit training programs increasingly focused on cutting-edge technology.  (The disappearance of that Udacity Psych course I took during my One Year BA seems to confirm their move away from anything that doesn’t involve helping paying customers prepare for computer-science and engineering careers.)

At the same time, a couple of European MOOC providers that were just getting started when I did my original One Year BA (the UK’s FutureLearn and Germany’s iVersity) each offer several dozen courses that cover a range of disciplines.

A number of courses from all the current providers are in languages other than English.  While this is great in terms of increasing the range of people who can take advantage of MOOCs, it does shrink my choices somewhat with regard to how many classes are available for an English-language-only student to pick from.

As a final note regarding content breadth, as much as these catalogs have expanded I did not see enough history courses (especially advanced ones) that would allow me to complete a major in that subject using only current or announced MOOC classes.  That could certainly change by the end of 2015, but I suspect that this shortage reflects the fact that free learning is still a bit lopsided towards professional courses in subjects like business and computer science (vs. general liberal arts).

Moving from catalog breadth to course depth, I think it’s also safe to say that the drift towards shorter courses that started in 2013 seems to have continued with more MOOCs falling into the 6-8 week range vs. the 10-14 weeks that might be considered closer to full-semester length.  The fact that many MOOCs (especially coming out of edX) break longer courses into shorter 4-6 week “mini-courses” confounds this analysis somewhat.  But the overall trend still seems to be towards briefer learning experiences, which would make it even more of a stretch today to consider 32 MOOCs as the equivalent of 32 full-credit college classes.

I also noticed a substantial number of MOOCs are now being offered on demand (meaning you can start and finish them any time).  I had wondered a year or so back whether MOOC providers would gravitate towards this option once more courses were “in the can.”  And, from what I can see, far more courses are now available in this format, which is good news in terms of convenience, even if it changes the nature of a learning process that I experienced as part of a community of learners working through the same material at the same time.

One thing I cannot judge without actually taking another hoard of classes (which, as noted above, I don’t plan to do) is how the nature of specific massive classes has changed over the last couple of years.  But now that I’m an insider within at least one MOOC institution, I expect that most MOOC makers have been participating in the culture of experimentation that makes massive open learning so unique.

In addition to better production values and more imaginative use of media, this new crop of MOOCs is likely to be embracing new pedagogues that take advantage of the unique nature of the massive learning environment.  So while I have no regrets that I’ll be spending 2015 making vs. taking MOOCs, I am sorry to not be spending more time diving into courses that are likely to be ever more rewarding than the ones I completed for my One Year BA.

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One Response to MOOCs in 2015

  1. Cristy Thiessen February 27, 2015 at 5:31 am #

    I just found you, after searching the web on a mission of free education myself. I started a few
    Cousera classes last month, and am attempting the Saylor biol degree. It looks reading intensive which I’m not a fan of after relying so heavily on the lectures. I like books yes, but reading on the screen not as much.
    I also just started a blog like yesterday, to write about the things I learn. So well I just wanted to let u know I love u, I mean ur valiant effort to learn and help carry the free education revolution forward! Viva

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