5 things I learned about MOOCs in 2012

About  a month ago, The New York Times declared 2012 the year of the MOOC. That’s Massive Open Online Course, in case you haven’t come across the term yet.

Given how much time I spent enrolled in MOOCs this year, I kind of knew this already. But for those now dipping their toes into this phenomenon, here are the top 5 things I learned this year.

1.  MOOCs are addictive. Like seriously addictive.  You think the internet is distracting now.  Wait until you’re juggling the demands of the five fascinating  Ivy League courses you signed up with through Coursera.  I’m kidding, but not entirely. Somewhere around July I found myself wrestling between my Code Year resolution with Codecademy and my determination to complete the Studio Track of Stanford’s Human Computer Interaction course. What began as a five week project soon stretched into something closer to eight weeks as Stanford realized how unprepared most people were for the work involved in field researching, building, testing and peer reviewing a web app.  I did it.  But by September I was burnt out.  Had I not dropped out of Machine Learning after half a video and made a firm decision to bear down, I never would have grocked Python (or learned the word “grock”).  So if MOOCs are something that might interest you in 2013, make a resolution now not to become a MOOC slut.

2. MOOCs are an awesome way to meet people in your home town. This is especially true if you live in a tech oriented city. If there isn’t already a meet up somewhere in your town in the subject you’ve become interested in you can probably start one. Or you can start meetups specifically around the course you happen to have enrolled in. Those meet ups will no doubt lead to other meetups. After organizing the first Code Year meet up in Montreal, I met and introduced people who went on to put on the first Montreal Maker Faire. The interests I cultivated through that venture led me to  WordCamp Montreal, Semantic Web meet ups,  MTL Girl Geeks, MTL Girl Hackers, to mention only a few groups I discovered over the year. Problem was I was so over enrolled in MOOCs, I often couldn’t go to all the things I wanted to.

3. MOOCS are like running.  They’re free. They require little expense or equipment. They’re outside the usual  parameters of civilized life. You make your own challenges. You feel your strength, endurance, and confidence build. You’ll want to quit right before you reach the finish line/personal goal/personal best.  But if you bear down, you’ll learn the effort is really worth it.

4. MOOCS are like a treadmill. They can be a great stepping stone to real life learning. If you’re shy of university life for whatever reason, or you want to try out a subject first to see if it’s for you, MOOCs are great.  But at a certain point you need to find an entry point into the complexities of real life learning.  That might be a meet up, a project independent of what you’re learning in the MOOC, or, in the end, a classroom course in that subject. If MOOCs are your only source of learning you’re going to get bored.

5. MOOCs are especially great for women. At one point this year, I came across a popular  tech ed blog, where it was speculated that the gender ratio of MOOCS were probably not much different from those in regular Computer Science courses. i.e dismally biased towards men.  I’m not convinced that’s true. Almost all the people who showed up to my Montreal Code Year meet ups were women. My experience of peer review in the Coursera HCI course is that there were many women in the course. And, while I don’t know the numbers, I feel safe speculating that MOOCs will be a significant factor  in restoring gender balance to computer science. (Yes I did use the word RESTORE.)

MOOCS in my experience are a great gateway to equity. This isn’t to say that societies should abandon a commitment to traditional learning.  We’re all going to have to be careful to make sure that MOOCs enable low cost high quality learning, not undermine it.

But I’m from Montreal.  Here we march in the streets and bang kitchenware to keep university tuition fees low.  As a result one out of two  Montreal university graduates are first generation (i.e. the first person in their family to go beyond highschool), by far the highest ratio in North America.

The MOOC can be an excellent learning path, and can do much to fill the equity gap, but it will never be a substitute for a deep social commitment to affordable higher learning.

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