Sunday, November 25, 2012

My first online course, and my take on MOOCs

Marshall Street Starbucks - Syracuse, NY

I finally did a whole online course (a Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC) starting this summer into the fall - a 7-week course on Listening to World Music offered on Coursera by Prof. Carol Muller of the University of Pennsylvania. I did this course for many reasons.

One was a quick introduction to different kinds of music - pretty likely that I'd never have heard of many of these. Having learnt some percussion music myself, having constantly interacted with musicians, and having attended many different concerts while I was growing up, I believe I have been exposed to many mainstream kinds of music, but would certainly have not come across many not-so-popular ones.

Second, I also thought I wanted to check out how the MOOCs work out, through a complete course. The lectures, homeworks, tests, grading, online discussions, etc. - the whole deal. Checking out the logistics also interested me.

Finally, I wanted to see if I had it in me to finish the course "successfully" when there was no compelling reason to. I mean, the certificate itself was not the motivation at all. It was a course just to learn. I'm happy to report that I did - I did not need a "do it or else" to finish the homeworks and tests :)

This course did not disappoint. It was definitely a fun course. I highly recommend it. A review article on the NY Times prompted me to blog about this course as well - my take on it.

I did enjoy the different kinds of music introduced by Prof.Muller and some stories surrounding them. Many forms of music remain indigenous to the place of origin and must be shared by experts so that we can learn about such cultures. I got introduced to very interesting kinds of music - Tuvan throat singing, Aboriginal traditional music, South African Isicathamiya, and many others. And since they were all YouTube links, you know how it goes - keep following links and suddenly it would have been many hours of browsing.

Some interesting comments that were raised during the course included concerns about plagiarism(!) such as googling for answers during tests, etc. Well, if such courses is purely to learn, what is the real point behind this? So, I'll not really analyse this further, except that perhaps they just wanted the certificate. Now, if as there are discussions going around to offer college credit for such courses, this will be an issue to ponder over. There will be the additional overheads of supervised online exams, expert reviews on essays, etc. I'm curious to see how this works out, esp. if there are so many thousands in hundreds of courses. It will be a huge step in the format of education if this happens. And no, by way of credit it will not affect me, though. I will remain a bystander with regards to college credit - since I would have graduated by then! :)

I will admit, however, that I did skip or skim through many parts of the slides since I was not very keen on the details about the political scenes at the time. I just wanted the music and a brief story or two. But, of course, there were about 30-40,000 other students registered, and so, the course is tailored for students with varied interests, but the benefit of it being open and online is that you participate to whatever degree you wish to; pick and learn whatever you want to. I think this in itself is a very strong message.

Slightly off-topic, but my personal opinion on many of the "well-rounded education" theories after undergraduate degrees are somewhat overrated and it is perhaps not necessary. Most people I know just end up going through the motions and doing what needs to be done, not really with interest. And for a Masters or a PhD, it should not be essential. For high school and bachelors degrees, yes, it is essential - since students are still unsure about what they want to pursue and specialize in. But not later than that. Anyway, that is my two pennies worth on "core courses".

That said, back to the main subject. I did suffer through the final exam because I had skipped through many slides and did poorly enough that I did not complete this course with distinction (>80%), but just received a certificate of completion (>70%). That's fair though, I did just pick and choose whatever interested me most! My scores and the material skipping reminded me of my undergrad days :) However, as I mentioned before, the certificate was never the motivation, so that's that on the certificate's role in the course.

The grading was done by peers, and averaged out - the average of 5 anonymous reviews. Seems OK (students were generous and, in general, gave me high scores, and so did I), but perhaps multiple choice questions would have been more fun (I like MCQs), easier to have automated grading, and it is objective, not subjective. However, I understand that is perhaps hard to incorporate HWs as MCQs for all courses. This one, for example, had essays to write, so I don't know how this would have worked out as MCQs.

Online discussions were pretty awesome, actually. (Although, I was kind of lazy, mostly used it as read-only.) There were so many interesting ideas put forth. If I had to pick out just one really fantastic feature of MOOCs, it would be this - online discussions by fellow students. You can see social networking, crowd sourcing, etc. at its best - a treasure chest of ideas pinged back and forth, very original opinions, hard to find in any textbook. This course had a few Teaching Assistants as well, and they did a fantastic job in their contributions to the discussion forums.

There have also been discussions about whether MOOCs will replace traditional college educations completely in the future. I can see it being a powerful factor, but I don't know about complete replacement, since a college education is much more than just doing a bunch of courses. However, this does bring about the issue of how much people will be willing to pay for "traditional" a college education and degree now that there are a growing number of such courses available for free online; and that too, all by leading experts. Well, I guess I'll wait and see it play itself out - I'm curious about this as well, i.e. to see where the equilibrium lies.

One thing I'm sure of, this will not be my last MOOC. And neither will it be my last explorations of the exciting kinds of music that I was exposed to through this course - I sense many more hours of YouTube-link-following coming up!

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