MOOCs on a Plane- Coursera and JetBlue

MOOCs on a Plane

JetBlue passengers enjoy the realistic 3-D graphics in Coursera’s Paleobiology course from the University of Alberta

Recently, the popular and edgy (for an airline anyway) JetBlue Air announced a partnership with Coursera that will make ten Coursera MOOCs part of a set of new inflight “Edutainment” options (alongside other content from organizations like National Geographic).

Interestingly, only one of the courses on offer (an Introduction to Marketing MOOC from the Wharton School of Management) relates directly to the kind of practical subjects one would expect frequent travelers to gravitate towards.  The rest are a mix of academic courses covering science (including an astronomy course from the University of Edinburgh and a paleo-biology course from the University of Alberta), medicine (Epidemics from Penn State) and even a Berkley School of Music course on how to play the guitar.

Given that my 2013 One Year BA took place during a year that involved occasional travel, I can attest to the fact that MOOCing can indeed be done on a plane (as well as on busses, trains and even the occasional hike).

In all of those pre-JetBlue announcement travel instances, Internet bandwidth was the deciding factor of what could and could not be done while in transit.   For while carriers like JetBlue and Amtrak do offer free wireless, bandwidth shared by hundreds of passengers made accessing video content so slow and painful that online MOOCing during transport became unworkable.

JetBlue will likely be solving this problem by making Coursera content available via the same local media system powering other in-flight entertainment (which will allow some passengers to study dinosaurs while others watch Godzilla).  But remember that most of the major MOOC systems (including Coursera and edX) allow you to download video content to play on your own device – which is what I did to keep up with several of my courses while traveling last year.

Such a learning-while-in-motion strategy requires some forethought, however.  That’s because downloaded video lectures are only one part of a MOOC with many other components (including quizzes and discussion groups) still requiring an Internet connection to access.  For the most part, this meant plane flights and train rides were spent watching lectures (and taking notes – a point I’ll get back to in a minute) and catching up with classroom reading, with assignments and discussion left for the hotel room after travel was completed.

I should also note that this download strategy had its limitations, especially as MOOCs started gravitating from longer lectures (1-2 hours of lecture broken into 3-6+ 15-20 minute segments was a standard in early 2013) to shorter YouTube-style 1-3 minute segments – many of them associated with readings and/or assessment questions proceeding or following each video.  While there are legitimate pedagogical reasons behind breaking material up into smaller and smaller units, there came a point where the energy needed to download and keep track of dozens of micro-videos just to watch them in a sequence in which they were not originally intended made this downloading strategy no longer worth the effort.

Back to note taking, putting lectures onto the in-seat small screen will eliminate the need to balance a laptop and notebook in a cramped seat space.  This might seem like a small issue, but given the importance of note taking to learning success, that kind of balancing act – and the challenges it presented when sitting cheek-to-jowl with fellow-passengers – did keep me from doing schoolwork on flights where I didn’t get to monopolize an empty middle seat next to me.

Since we’ve segued to pragmatics, it’s also worth noting that many of JetBlue’s initial Coursera offerings are pretty hefty (Wharton’s Intro to Marketing, for example, is nine weeks long with an estimated 5-6- hour time commitment per week).  Which means only the most frequent flyers are likely to be able to complete the course over several trips on the same airline.

On the ground, the Coursera learning management system keeps track of where you are (as well as facilitating quizzes, discussions and other non-lecture components of a course).  But will JetBlue be integrating that system into their Inflight entertainment console?  Or will their offering just consist of lecture videos, with the student required to keep track of their progress within their own Coursera account after they land?

And I hate to be a nudge, but courses sometimes do involve activities that can’t be performed at a desk (or a tray table).  Which makes me curious how students taking Berkeley’s “How to Play the Guitar” will be getting their in-class exercises and homework done while aloft.

None of these practical considerations should obscure my overall enthusiasm for such a bold step towards normalizing the notion that learning – especially learning those subjects we thought we had to stop studying formally at the age of 22 – can be done anytime anywhere.  But given the MOOC’s exceptionally low barrier to both entry and exit, it is sometimes the little things that make students decide that a new type of learning experience is or isn’t worth the trouble.

So while the story of MOOCs on a plane makes a great press release, if airborne education is ever going to take off (or at least be part of a new “learning-everywhere” tapestry), then I hope someone is thinking through the details that will determine whether such an experience is something students (of any age) actually want to engage in.

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