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Why Free Online Classes Are Still the Future of Education (wired.com)
67 points by tchalla on Sept 26, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 60 comments

My big annoyance is with the MOOCs that still try and fit you into a schedule. Many times I have been in a course where I would have burned through the whole thing if I was allowed. But instead they feel the need to stagger the information on a weekly basis and I lose interest. Coursera is the one that comes to mind. I also don't care about getting a grade or certificate. Just give me all the lectures at once and some exercises so I can practice if I want. Gotta let go of the past.

Coursera actually offers several classes that can be done at your own pace. It's gradually expanding, and will eventually offer a wide range of courses. There's also plenty of courses that aren't closed after their completion date.

EdX has done the same with their Introduction to Linux course: https://www.edx.org/course/linuxfoundationx/linuxfoundationx...

That's good to know, because my complaint is the opposite of his, yet the solution is the same. I don't usually want to crash through it all in one weekend, though if that were the best timing, I might. My usual problem is that if I'm too busy to work on the class during the period they have designated as the only time Assignment 4 can be worked on, I have essentially dropped out of the class instead of just pausing it. It's like a TV mini-series shown for two hours every night for five days in the days before consumer video recorders. If something came up at work that made you miss two episodes, you may as well skip the rest, because the series is ruined.

Contrast that to just putting up all five episodes on YouTube and leaving them there. What a relief! Skip a couple of days, and you're still watching the show, as far as you're concerned.

I can't fuss too much about such great courses that are offered to me for free, but it would be nice if they could routinely post the entire course and just leave it up. Each assignment could have its own forum thread, all of them in parallel, and reading back over these threads would probably clear up anything you were wondering about.

I know some courses are already of this sort. I hope more will move in this direction.

I didn't know that. Perhaps I will have to revisit it. Thanks.

Agreed, most moocs follow a traditional method by recording lectures and posting them weekly. For a better way of learning check out udacity. Go at your own pace and is somewhat more interactive. Khan academy is also good for specific subjects.

Khan Academy is really cool. I do find it to be pretty surface level though. At least for what I am interested: Electrical Engineering and Music Theory.

Khan has said that he wants to explore more specific, advanced topics at some point. I think they realized their opportunity to stay relevant (and well funded) is to first focus on K-12.

If the class is hard, then the schedule serves an important purpose, which is to keep a group of students together at about the same point in the curriculum. That way, if some of them get stuck, there will be other people working on the same material at the same time who can help them get unstuck. I have learned (and tried and failed at learning) some difficult material through pure self-study in the past, and when you get stuck, you can stay stuck for a long time.

Then your MOOC is the entire internet.

This is definitely true to a degree. It doesn't work well for all things though. For instance, I am particularly interested in Electrical Engineering (I want to build modular synthesizers) right now. I have no foundation in it and I found some MIT lectures on youtube. They were awesome but sadly the lecture series was incomplete. I know I could just read a book but they tend to be very dense. Having the lectures was super helpful. I see these MOOCs as a way to open these lectures to the world. They just need to not try and fit it into the old style. Truly voracious and driven students should be able to progress at their own pace while having high quality presentations. Scheduled curriculum feels like a huge barrier to me. I'm not inclined to pay for a scheduled curriculum where I would pay for a all-at-once lecture series.

Not really, he still want the structured learning with video lectures that has a clear path, he just wants to be able to take it and run rather than being forced to crawl/walk though the material.

An MOOC for a subject is truly just a big wikipedia article. Text, video, audio resources curated by someone.

Hopefully MOOCs will eventually be similar to epub books; open format, meta data, a collection of digital objects.

We're not focused on curriculum, but rather a collection of content around a subject at https://curiosity.com.

Wiki, text, video, audio...people learn different ways in different order unless they're made to do otherwise. We're focused on the always curious person. MOOCs serve a different purpose so hard to see them going more unstructured.

"An MOOC for a subject is truly just a big wikipedia article." I don't agree with this. I've taken several online courses at EdX (EE, AI) Coursera(ML, PGM) and Udacity(Web App, Hadoop), and the things that are in the online classes that are not in a Wikipedia article - other students, homework with deadlines - are a large part of the value provided.

I think it depends on your objective. Do you want to learn something on your own time, in the order you choose, with the media types you want? That is more of what we're going for with https://curiosity.com vs a directed approach. More choice and less structure and force. But then again, some people need and want that depending on their goal.

I would posit that there are two categories of MOOC students: those that seek out classrooms to learn focused knowledge; and those that find the online education style appealing.

The former category, I believe, is far more driven. These students are self-motivated, with a drive/need to learn and digest the information quickly and/or in their own timeframe (the "binge learners," similar to the binge watchers of entire seasons of television shows on Netflix).

The second category of MOOC students is more nebulous to me. Without specific intent and purpose, but enthralled by the potential to take courses and/or get course credit online, their urge to engage is simply less.

You, joshontheweb, clearly are of the first category, as am I, and I can sympathize with the irritation and frustration of waiting for material to appear.

The greater issues, as I see them, regarding MOOC and a free university education online, are that of measurement, breadth, and accountability. Taking courses online is akin to having a class where all the exams and benchmarks are "take-homes." We have no way to measure what is actually being learned, consumed, digested, encoded vs what is simply being spit back from a book or other source. What's more, when something is free, somehow people often don't value it in quite the same way. Ask someone to pay $5 for a class, and even that may motivate a different participation and engagement level. Kind of like buying a series of workout sessions with a personal trainer - you're far more likely to show up to the gym.

In regards to the breadth issue, universities make you take courses across a number of subjects and categories in order to make sure you have some basic foundational coursework under your belt. We may not have all enjoyed all of these categorically required classes, and if nothing else, a few left me with some fodder for dinner party conversation. The online university education system, in order to be truly beneficial, functional, and comparable for degree programs, will have to lay out some common minimum and breadth requirements, that may provide a replicable experience for students truly interested in pursuing an advanced degree. Of course, this really doesn't apply to those interested merely in enrichment and in-depth instruction on specific topics rather than a degree program. For these students, the availability of knowledge and practical implementation exercises is all that matters.

Finally, I see an issue with accountability, as in the difficulty with provided online students with enough structure and deadline as to promote a sense of onus and accountability. As noted earlier, this also ties in directly with the issue of not paying for coursework. Some might argue that releasing information weekly provides students with a benchmark of when and where they should be learning material; however, arguably, releasing the material from the get-go, and establishing an end-date for the course, by which time students must complete all graded coursework, would also suffice. I can't quite put my finger on it yet, but somewhere the measure of accountability within this space falls short. There is a nebulous void between the sources and recipients of knowledge and education online. Maybe it's the lack of true interaction, maybe it's the lack of classroom (the engagement of a finite group of students, seated next to each other, forced to endure the annoying drone of the heavy breather sitting next to you, the random but startling crackling of the lecturer's microphone, the timely malfunction of the overhead projector, the ripe and palpable angst during an exam…), or maybe it's just not education as I know, or knew, it, which doesn't mean a darn thing.

Having been in educational settings, both one-on-one and classroom, I fear I am quick to think of the students for whom this type of educational forum would be useless. Those students who look for the shortcuts, and simply want the accolades and recognition for having done something, with little impetus to do the work. Instead, as I write this, I think about the students for whom MOOC will truly be revolutionary and life-altering. For those students, who could not afford nor gain access to higher education, but who would do anything for it, then I imagine and hope that it would be for them that we would not have to worry about precise measurement and accountability. Instead, they will hopefully relish the opportunity to learn, breadth and all, striving to turn the opportunity into reality, recharting the courses of their futures, and approaching MOOC with gratitude and integrity.

You are definitely right about the different types of students. It isn't a black and white problem. It also feels to me like the problem is that they are obviously interested in making money. I think they believe that in order to make money you have to offer grades and certifications. In order to do that you have to control the experience. I hope they find ways to make money outside of this paradigm. Our businesses also need to adjust their ideas of what qualifies potential employees. It would be nice if you were qualified based on what you have done or built or figured out rather than on what you have been scored on. That is largely how it is in my field, software development. I am much more inclined to pay for an all-in-one lecture series than a scheduled and scored curriculum. Thats just me and I know I'm not representative of everyone.

The issue of certification and grades is a big one. Especially in terms of functionality of skills and hire-ability. Grades are what I lovingly refer to as "third-party perspective" on your knowledge. I can tell you whatever I want, but a grade or a certification or a degree, that's some measure of corroboration of your own self-perception. I totally agree that it would be great to be measured upon past achievement, but to play devil's advocate, think about trying to get your first job. Every application asks about your experience. Well, in order to get experience, you need a job, and in order to get a job, you need experience. In a way, an education and a degree, particularly from a renowned university, is a form of advanced recommendation, and at the very least, scholastic experience. But to the point of being measured upon accomplishment, this is, naturally, heavily biased against the less experienced, who may have much to offer, but not have yet had the opportunity to display and demonstrate their potential.

Maybe there should be two tracks for the MOOC -- degree/certification/program based and the casual/intense/driven supplemental learner… the latter of which gets his or her material and supplementary exercises and resources in lump sum. The alternative, of course, is to do like you do with Netflix - wait for the entire season of [insert addictive show] to become available and commit 24 hours to watching the entire thing with minimal bathroom breaks and pausing to get a bowl of soup - wait until the course is almost over, then sign up, and you can go through everything all at once…

The entire concept of online classes is an anachronism - the way early automobiles resembled horse carriages. This is just schools' futile attempts at staying relevant using some token internet and marketing themselves to people indoctrinated that traditional classes were the only way to learn. Lecture is the worst way to teach, and yet people gush about putting videos of lectures online as some sort of innovation. It's sad that we can't think a little more outside of the box.

An online education service I'd like to see is not teaching but certification. They could recommend learning resources and offer email and voice communication with subject matter experts for feedback and questions as needed, but the main job would be assessing your competence in a specific area and backing it up with a guarantee. You could get a card showing certification in Calculus II (expires one year after issuance) or Early American History, or whatever. But when you pass certification, you actually know the subject - not just sleepwalked through the course doing the minimal busy work. The student may use whatever learning methods that work best for themselves to achieve this and employers looking for specific experts would have confidence in the possession of that expertise.

> An online education service I'd like to see is not teaching but certification.

You appear to be describing essentially the model used by Western Governors University, http://www.wgu.edu (their "certification" is traditional degrees, and doesn't have an expiration date, but the educational model of focusing on demonstrated competence with the institution combining assessment with assistance in the form of recommended learning resources seems to be nearly exactly what you are describing.)

Well that's what their marketing says, and if true, then good for them. I guess I was thinking about something more atomic and a la carte. It'd be cool to have a card that said "Protonfish - certified expert in Game Theory, H. G. Wells, Franciso Tarrega, molecular biology and TCP/IP.

(I am not actually an expert in these areas, but I wanna be.)

The certification model can work for lower level math and some social science or humanities subjects. But how do you certify in subjects like abstract algebra or Byzantine paleography or chemical engineering? A multiple choice test is not going to cut it. The subjects either take place at too high a degree of abstraction or require access to materials to do properly, or both. What you describe could work for a community college level education but not for a real university education.

These things are not impossible to certify but I agree an online multiple choice test is not sufficient. Advanced subjects would have to be assessed by another expert using whatever methods work: live Q&A, a major project, working the in field. I can't really say as each area could have vastly different ways to best measure competency.

There are plenty of people in online learning that agree with your first paragraph, but it's easier said than done.

Lectures are easier than creating a completely different methodology for teaching, so it's the first step in the process.

I would argue that online textbooks are the first step and video lectures are a step backward.

A modern automobile is less similar to a horse carriage than an early automobile. On the other hand, it's more similar to a horse carriage than, say, a washing machine. Compared to a horse carriage, a modern automobile is faster, lower to the ground, typically enclosed, and more aerodynamic. On the other hand, it still has 4 wheels and a set of seats.

Similarly, I think the current iteration of 'online classes' is more similar to what online education will look like in 10, 20, or 50 years.

You assert that a lecture is the worst way to teach. What is a book or essay, but a lecture in written form? For some students, or some subjects, written text with diagrams might be superior. For others, a live voice, with gestures and diagrams might be superior. It's worth pointing out that, when a lecture is recorded, it can be sped up, slowed down, rewound, and so on. If a transcript is available, it can be skimmed for recall.

But, you might argue, lectures, essays, and any such static methods are still 'the worst'. Give me Socratic dialogues, interactive diagrams, hands-on labs and experiments! A - I'd assert that for some subjects (or portions of subjects), a lecture is actually better. B - This can and has been done in online classes, just as in real classes. In some ways, even attempting to use these 'new and modern' methods could be seen as an anachronism, to the extent they look similar to existing methods used in live classrooms.


As for certification, it's worth noting that some online course sites are positioning themselves as learning + certification sites. Also, isn't the blanket idea of 'certification' something of an anachronism? ;). Many on HN would argue that when hiring, a cert or degree is only a very rough filter, and interviews / work samples are superior for assessing competency in a subject.

Think about the current state of offline certification - we have things like University Degrees, CISSP, and the Bar.

University Degrees are a broad indicator of a person not being stupid, and perhaps having studied some particular topic at one point in their lives. On the other hand, most jobs treat them as necessary but not sufficient, and other jobs treat them as optional. Once a candidate is in front of an interviewer, a Degree probably won't sway the hiring decision much.

Then there's more specific certifications, like the CISSP. Like you were suggesting, the CISSP can be obtained without necessarily taking any other classes, as long as one has acquired the necessary knowledge and experience. Those hiring treat this certification anywhere from absolutely necessary, to nice but optional, to an indication that a candidate is undesirable.

And then there's certifications like the Bar. While not technically requiring taking any class, it would be fairly difficult to pass without one. It's an absolute necessity to have, to work in that field.

University Degrees range from mildly to very expensive (but at least some multiple thousands of dollars), and are a weak indicator. The CISSP exam is ~$500, not counting study materials, and is an 'ok' indicator. Merely taking the Bar will run multiple thousands of dollars, not counting the necessary classes, and is a strong indicator.

Where do you see your envisioned online certification service? Do you think you can crack the problem of actually useful certification, without charging students multiple hundreds of dollars per cert?

I spent a few days looking through online courses from a couple of different vendors, hoping to take course of online class in a new field of study, so I could round myself out or possibly find a new career field.

I quickly learned that outside of the Software Development discipline, and a precious few pure science fields, there are virtually no courses available. If you'd like to look into education or humanities or any of the thousands of other degrees? All you'll find are 101 level courses, if you find anything at all.

Hopefully this will improve, but I'm not holding my breath.

This is exactly right. That's why I started MASSOLIT (www.massolit.io), which provides video lectures in the arts and humanities. It normally costs £5/month, but if you send me an e-mail (chris@massolit.io) I'd be happy to give you a couple of months for free...

Very cool. Interested in learning more. Would like to list your courses on our site (https://curiosity.com).

I have mixed feelings about the MOOCs.

On the positive side, the benefits are substantial. 1. Democratized access to the world's top educators, 2. Low cost distribution of education.

On the negative side, the MOOCs are kind of the large classroom problem taken to the extreme. It's generally agreed that a classroom with more students per teacher is not as good as a lower student/teacher ratio.

But to critique my own negativity, the people working on MOOCs are smart and motivated. It's a bit naive to think that the current MOOC is as good as they will ever get. Clearly, these are early stage products that have substantial evolution and improvement in their future.

The one area in open education that needs to improve is around content licensing. If you look at most open educational content, the licenses are restricted open source (GPL like) and note unrestricted open source (MIT/BSD/Apache like). I fail to understand how making the content unrestricted would not benefit everyone.

The thing is I'd rather take a course from a top instructor even at a massive scale, than to take a poor course made by a guy who doesn't have any real business teaching the class. There is no reason every tiny state school should be recreating a bad machine learning class (example) when you can take a good one from a good instructor. If you go to even more basic topics (intro to comp sci), the quality you will get from having a TA teach a class to a lecture hall to a top instructor teaching over a MOOC will be like night and day.

> The thing is I'd rather take a course from a top instructor even at a massive scale, than to take a poor course made by a guy who doesn't have any real business teaching the class.

There's an excluded middle here.

Yes I agree, there are great classes all over the place, and there might be some gems where you least expect it, but for the most part the quality of the classes are going to go down as you go to worse and worse schools.

are you assuming that a tiny state school will have worse quality teachers than a top private school? or even that someone who is not a professional teacher is worse than a teacher at a "top" school?

The tiny state school might have the best machine learning class in the world.

Yes I am assuming that. As someone who attended a small state school compared to the level of some of the coworkers taken by classmates at the top schools it is like night and day. Trust me the machine learning class at stanford is better than the one at eastern ct state university (for example)

I have taken that specific course, and yes, it is very good. But I don't think it's always the case that professors at top schools are always better than TAs at small colleges. Top professors are almost always research-oriented and some let their teaching skills suffer.

My counter example would be the Algorithms course from Princeton with Robert Sedgewick. I would rate that as basically "just ok."

Sorry, wrote that in a rush. I meant "compared to the level of classes taken by some of my coworkers"

do you mean level of difficulty or mastery attained by the students?

the quality of the instructional materials, mastery, and level of difficulty yes.

The top-20 schools have the pick of the litter, they can choose whomever they like from applicants all over the world. That leaves all other schools to choose from a thoroughly picked-over pile.

As a university teacher the most important thing you have to do is to pitch the level right. Anything that isn't a top-level school suffers from the tyranny of low expectations, and the cliff after the first 20-25 schools in the rankings is really quite steep. There are no public ivies.

"There are no public ivies."

Yet somehow the University of California at Berkeley has one of the 4 best computer science programs in the world, and it's better than all but 3 programs at private schools (Stanford, CMU and MIT).

Yes for sure, I am not trying to pick on public schools, its just that VAST majority of schools are not top level, and there are thousands of bad computer science classes being taught.

I disagree. I took Andrew Ng's ML class, and I have a CS(-ish) degree from a tiny state school. Only one of my professors was near Ng's level as an instructor. Also, tiny state schools have a hard time getting and keeping instructors who are knowledgeable about in-demand topics, or higher-level topics. We didn't have a machine learning class at all, although it was touched on in the AI survey class.

I don't think a benefit of a MOOC is democratized access to the world's top educators. I think that the same level of education is available online, and it is already democratized.

The critical component is someone putting together the order in which you learn it. Perhaps that requires top educators, but I don't think it really does. What MOOCs do that really benefits me is removes the wasted time of discovery with an ordered process that makes sense.

My daughter does Khan Academy. The information she is learning isn't particularly novel, however the order and structure is. That's the key.

Google searching for the same topics will get you great information as well, but you need to know what to search for. You need to include that search time through each part. You need to filter out bad material.

That's my view at least.

"It's a bit naive to think that the current MOOC is as good as they will ever get. Clearly, these are early stage products that have substantial evolution and improvement in their future."

Actually, I'm starting to get worried about this. I took the first version of Andrew Ng's ML class in late 2011, and I'm taking a different Coursera class now, and there hasn't been much improvement that I can see in the basic offering. Specifically, one area where online classes should be able to outperform traditional classes is in the handling of pre-requisite material (since in a MOOC it isn't necessary for all of the students to see the same material, some could start at different points), but there hasn't been any work or progress in that direction at all. That may explain why almost all online classes are intro-level.

Let me get this right. If we prevent student from knowing source code in CS then education will improve?

Or, if we allow students from remixing music and images in art studies, then their education is going to get worse?

Or if we allow students to take apart technical diagrams and improve on them, then their education is surely going down the hill?

Please enlighten us how such restrictions would help a student who want to learn, experiment and improve their skills. It might help akbar501 businesses if he could take something under bsd/mit and slap proprietary restrictions on them, but I do not count that as "benefiting education". Thats like me asking people to send me money in order to "benefit the economy".

All good points though I think the last regarding licensing is debatable. I am not certain these courses would exist at all if it were not for a profit motive.

MOOCs like Udacity and Coursera have a fair amount of funding...



That was poor communication on my part.

I should have been explicit with the open content I was referring to. Specifically, I meant the content from Khan Academy, CK12, and the like. Not the for profit companies.

Are they now? Part of what you do at a university is build your professional network, both upwards, through your mentors, and sideways, with your peers. You also get introduced to new developments in your field, through informal, unscripted interactions, just walk down the hall and talk to the fellow in the office two doors down. That's a university. You don't get that through online courses. For a trade school, online courses work just fine. And the ruling class needs well-trained, obedient drones.

HA! I hear this all the time and it certainly didn't apply to me. This has a lot of assumptions baked into it.

1) You actually socialize with classmates (I didn't). 2) You either went to a top ranked school or stayed in the area where those graduates generally migrate to. (I didn't) 3) You did activities outside of class (I did (mainly embedded or MS talks), but were outside where I'm actually doing, so I'd call this a wash too)

Only as a grad student in math (but not computer science) did I feel I got the kind of interaction that makes in person classes, lectures, interaction more valuable.

Honestly I don't think I got much out of university that I couldn't have gotten online.

Where I learned the most was my first three months in the industry. I learned VCS, scripting, bug tracking, code review, and about meet-ups/user groups. Basically everything important that wasn't programming.

It sounds like you didn't take advantage of all of the resources available then. Just because you didn't network in college doesn't mean it isn't useful.

Of course, but I think there's a large percentage (minimum double digits, I'd guess probably at least in the 20's or 30's though) that were just like me and it wouldn't have made a bit of difference if they did their degree in a box, on the internet, or on a campus.

At the time I didn't even know that was something your were supposed to do unless you were in a frat or a business major. To me college was a place to go and take classes and get your degree and that was pretty much it or at least that was what I was lead to believe was the only important part.

When I started university, the first thing that they told us, at the beginning of the first class, was to form groups and try to meet people.

You just made the best argument in favour of the much ridiculed student success centers, deans of diversity &c. You can put someone from an educated family into a university and they will do just fine; if they aren't they will get advice from their parents, and then they will do fine. But access to university is less exclusive nowadays, and first-generation students will need some boost or prodding that their upbringing just couldn't provide to take all possible advantage of their environment (and it isn't their fault).

Yup, exactly, but it was new to me and didn't stick at all. Only now do I know what I should've done while there.

My dad got his degree; he was first generation and didn't get a lot out of it, so I'm basically a second first generation college student and have had to pick up most of this myself. My kids will get a lot more out of their experiences than I did though.

You are absolutely right about the invaluable experience of attending a university in person. However, there are less fortunate individuals that crave an education but can neither afford nor gain access to the university system. I am of course referring to both students inside and outside of the United States. There are absolutely elements that one cannot replicate online; however, given the choice between online education and none at all? Well, the choice seems painfully clear. I understand that you were not suggesting that online education is futile, and simply advocating the benefits of attending university on campus. I believe that it's important not just to look at where the two experiences are dissimilar, and the disadvantages of MOOC, but rather to also recognize the advantages MOOC offers to many, as the alternative to no education at all.

I decided not to go the University because I'd rather be paid to learn, than pay to learn.

I'm 33 now, and have 15 years of experience in my field. I have a professional network that is incredible. I learned everything I know from online courses, or online documentation.

People who graduated college are years behind, and in debt for it.

So my argument is that a university is a poor place to build a professional network in comparison to your actual profession. Especially upwards where you will have contacts several places higher than you developed over years.

A professional environment introduces you to new developments in your field.

That networking has to be done in proximity to other people is, and will increasingly be, an outdated concept.

In my experience, networking requires one strong interaction. Drinking once with someone especially helps.

After that strong interaction, proximity is irrelevant.

+1. I think that's a wise observation.

MOOCs are a great alternative / supplement to the the modern day debt peonage that often results from standard educational options. One to watch? Minerva Project, which has Miriam Rivera as COO: http://www.minervaproject.com/

I found out about it after taking several courses on www.Novoed.com including: "Technology Entrepreneurship" with Chuck Eesley (free, two-part course offered by Stanford University), "Startup CEO" with Matt Blumberg, "Venture Deals" with Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson, "The Startup Pitch" with +Chris Lipp, and "Raising Startup Capital" with Clint Korver. Miriam was previously CEO of Kauffman Fellows Academy.

I've referenced these courses and the type of opportunity MOOCs present on my personal blog while addressing the "Pipeline Problem" that has come up in relation to diversity numbers at major tech cos.


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