What Professors Can Learn From 'Hard Core' MOOC Students

M. Scott Brauer for The Chronicle

Jonathan Haber took a year off from work with the goal of completing four years' worth of undergraduate study via massive open online courses.
May 20, 2013

If people who sit at their computers for tens of hours each week zapping virtual monsters are hard-core gamers, then massive open online courses have led to a similarly obsessed breed of online student: the hard-core learner.

Nearly 100 students using Coursera, the largest provider of MOOCs, have completed 20 or more courses. And more than 900 students have finished 10 or more courses, according to the company. That means taking several courses at a time, and racing through as many lecture videos and robot-graded assignments as possible to collect certificates that carry no official credit.

The term "MOOCs" is meant to parallel the video-game acronym "MMOGs," or massively multiplayer online games—collaborative worlds, like World of Warcraft, that have attracted millions of devoted players around the world. So perhaps it is no surprise that some MOOC students are driven to win as many certificates as possible and treat online lectures as a consuming pastime that keeps them from going outside to hang out with friends.

I talked at length with a handful of hard-core MOOC students, with questions big and small about why, and how much, they felt they were learning.

Most are driven mainly by curiosity rather than the desire to show off their certificates to any potential employer, and none has paid for a verified certificate.

Consider Anna Nachesa, a 42-year-old single mother in a village near Amsterdam who logs on to MOOCs for several hours each night after dinner with her teenage kids. She has always found TV boring, she says, and for her, MOOCs replace reading books. She is a physicist by training, with a degree from Moscow State University, and she works as a software developer.

"This stuff is actually addictive," she says. In some ways the lure is like Everest: Some want to climb it to see if they can. "The Dutch have the proverb 'If you never shoot, you already missed,'" she says.

It's unlikely that MOOC addiction will grow into a pressing social problem—after all, Coursera already claims more than 3.5 million students, so these junkies are a small minority. But most of the people I interviewed say that they are somewhat embarrassed about how much time they spend glued to their laptops watching professors lecture, and that they plan to cut down from, say, seven courses at time to more like four.

"I don't think it's very healthy" is the confession of Pavel Lepin, a 35-year-old in the Latvian city of Jelgava who has earned certificates in "about 30" MOOCs, some from Coursera, some from Udacity, and some from edX. "My friends and co-workers are already making fun of me for being a Coursera addict."

One reason Mr. Lepin takes so many MOOCs at once is that he's afraid they might not last—or might not remain free—a concern shared by other students as well. "It boils down to what feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he says. "I'm just afraid this thing might end sometime soon."

4 Tips From MOOC Veterans

Colleges and professors teaching MOOCs or thinking about jumping in can learn a few things from these students, who have spent more time in these new virtual classrooms than just about anyone else on the planet.

Among their observations:

Clarity and organization are key. All six of the students said the quality of the MOOCs they've taken has varied widely. But a sure way to botch a MOOC comes down to one word: "ambiguity." When assignments, expectations, or the mechanics of the course are unclear, forum discussions erupt with frustration and misinformation.

"Every little glitch is multiplied a thousandfold or 10,000-fold," says Rich Seiter, a 47-year-old software engineer in Santa Cruz, Calif., who has completed 35 MOOCs. In the classroom setting that professors and students are used to—Mr. Seiter attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—such logistical issues can be quickly resolved, and many professors are accustomed to making up or adjusting the syllabus as they go along rather than having the whole semester planned before they start.

But Mr. Lepin argues that in MOOCs, the amount of planning, or lack of it, by the professor really shows. "There needs to be quite a bit of preparation," he says. "Some were not ready in time for release."

Professors are the stars. When the students talked about the MOOCs they've taken, they usually mentioned the professor first. They sometimes couldn't remember the name of the university offering the course.

"It makes professors a kind of celebrity, and I think they deserve it," says Ms. Nachesa. "It's much better than having actors or other kinds be celebrities."

Helen Weidner, a retired management analyst in Bastrop, Tex., who has completed 18 MOOCs, says she has been surprised by the level of adoration that MOOC students express in course-discussion forums. "Some of them wanted to make a T-shirt with the professor's face and one of his quotes," she says. Others said they were willing to donate money on crowdfunding sites to get a professor to offer additional courses.

Text still matters. When the only materials are lecture videos, it can be hard to go back and study for quizzes or exams, several of the students say. Since the videos aren't searchable in most MOOCs, students aren't sure where in the video to look for a given concept they are reviewing.

"I would really love that every course have some comparative set of reading materials," says Ms. Nachesa, who notes that it is faster to skim through text than video.

Mr. Seiter likes it when professors make copies of their slides available for download, so he can print them out and take notes on them while he watches the lecture videos.

Many professors who teach MOOCs have been reluctant to require a textbook that would cost students money, and most of the students I talked with have skipped buying optional textbooks. But even transcripts of lectures could help, they say.

Passion matters most. Not all the professors are great on camera, according to the students. But even those whose performances are occasionally cringeworthy end up winning students' hearts if the professors are clearly excited about the subject matter.

"There's one thing that makes a great course—it's passion," says Mr. Lepin. It is a sentiment that most everyone I spoke with seems to share.

MOOC vs. Mainstream

Opinions are mixed on the biggest question: Are MOOC students learning as much as they would in traditional courses?

At least one hard-core learner is focused on that question. The student is Jonathan Haber, a 51-year-old who has taken a year off from his job in publishing to try to get an entire four years' worth of college from MOOCs and other free online materials. He is blogging about his experience along the way.

Mr. Haber will have finished 16 MOOCs by June, out of his goal of 32, and he says he believes that in courses for which he does all the assignments and watches all the videos, he is learning as much as he remembers learning while he was earning his bachelor's degree, at Wesleyan University.

Mr. Seiter agrees that it as possible to learn as much online as in a traditional course, but that to do so usually requires doing optional readings, which most MOOCers skip.

And he notes that the workload of MOOCs varies greatly, just as it does in in-person classes. He admits that he often does minimal work on the essays he submits in courses that require them, and that based on the essays he has seen in peer grading, other students seem to be doing the same.

"The commitment level is lower" in free classes, he says. "Work that's submitted is not always the student's best work."

Markus Lauer, a 32-year-old Ph.D. student at Saarland University, in Germany, who has completed more than 28 MOOCs through Coursera, says the online courses have been a great way for him to get a quick introduction to new fields in a way books usually can't provide.

But to really learn any of those subjects in depth, he says, he'd have to hit the books in a more traditional way.

"If you want to become an expert in the field," he says, "I think you need the book."

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