Yep, that’s the question de jour, folks. To MOOC or not to MOOC. The Massive Open Online Course is a relatively brief teaching module on a specific subject. With videos, assorted materials, quizzes, homework and final exam. So, big deal? Yes it is. Because the best universities in the world can offer these courses, currently free, and anyone, including a poor boy or girl in Outer Mongolia or Zimbabwe, can log on and study.

Chemical Lectures by Thomas Rowlandson, 1809

But MOOCs are not without controversy. Tom Kvan in the Conversation summarizes thus: “The campus will survive the age of online learning, but not without change”.

I have just completed my first MOOC and I agree with him.

The Statistics in Medicine MOOC from Stanford was brilliant. And free. A superb lecturer and statistician, Dr Kristin Sainani, led us through a comprehensive 9-week course. Although 16,000 enrolled, we are unsure of retention rate at this time, but the breakdown of registrants was 31% health professionals, 18% scientists, 18% grad students, 15% undergrad students, 20% other (including 28 health journalists).

Why would you enrol in a MOOC?

Firstly, the opportunity to touch base with a top educational institution. Like Stanford. Nineteen of the current staff are Nobel Prize winners. Seventeen astronauts studied there. Four Pulitzer Prize winners teach there. The list of alma mater successes from that one university almost beggars belief.

Secondly, you can take advantage of an expert distilling what you need to know in a short, concise manner. That takes skill. I have quoted Blaise Pascal elsewhere where he said  “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time”. Try to cover logistic regression (or Mark Twain’s Legacy, or Fungal Diseases of Grape Vines, or anything else) in one lecture.

Are there drawbacks to MOOCs?

MOOC – every letter is negotiable (Wiki Commons)

For consumers – yes. Tom Kvan again lists issues with isolated learning, such as “the (failure to) test(ing) ..ideas”, the absence of “(learning) through encounter”, the lack of exposure to “research-led” teaching.

And for many (smaller) educational institutions? Massive potential hazards. How will they structure these courses in the face of elite, well-endowed major world universities who have the skill and money to launch these programs. As Brett Winterford writes: “For many Australian Universities there is uncertainty as to how to respond”

I see a time when you will need to pay (relatively little) to complete a qualification via MOOC at a great university out of your normal reach. For some in our world, this could mean the chance, maybe on a scholarship, to attend a fine campus to complete their studies.

For now, I suggest you should give it a go. Try a MOOC, it’s not all gobbledygooc.

Now, how do I speak to human beings again…

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