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The ABCs of MOOCs: what it's like to enroll

Sunday - 8/4/2013, 5:06am  ET

In this Thursday, May 30, 2013, photo, University of Pennsylvania professor Peter Struck, accompanied by teaching assistant Cat Gillespie, teaches a mythology class during a live recording of a massive, open, online classes (MOOC), in Philadelphia. Terms like “credit hour” and even the definition of what it means to be a college are in flux. Higher education is becoming “unbundled.” Individual classes and degrees are losing their connections to single institutions, in much the same way iTunes has unbundled songs from whole albums, and the Internet is increasingly unbundling television shows and networks from bulky cable packages. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

AP Education Writer

Esther Duflo, one of the two superstar MIT economists teaching my Massive Open Online Course on global poverty, is a fast-talking French woman with whom I could barely keep up -- especially when the topic was math.

Her co-teacher Abhijit Banerjee spoke so painfully slowly it was all I could do to keep from checking Facebook as he paused between thoughts during his lectures.

Never fear. One of the least technologically sophisticated innovations of these free new courses offered by elite universities is also one of the most useful: You can slow down the lectures to .75 times actual speed, listen in actual time, or speed them up by a factor of 1.25 or 1.5.

To think how much more I would have understood, and less time I would have wasted, if my in-person college experience 20 years ago had offered a similar feature.

Alas, while new and thrilling to me, such bells and whistles are hardly the key innovation of these attention-getting MOOCs. The real question is, Are their enthusiasts right that they can truly transform higher education? After months of writing regularly about MOOCs, I decided to become one of the millions who've signed up for these free online courses and -- far more exclusively -- one of the approximately 10 percent who finish.

About 39,600 signed up for "The Challenges of Global Poverty" and I was among 4,600 who finished. I passed, if not exactly with flying colors, and was emailed a PDF of the "certificate of mastery" to prove it -- my very own quasi-credential from MIT. The experience was enlightening, both on the subject matter and the potential for MOOCs generally. I learned more than I expected, and worked harder than I expected. I took a course for free from two leading experts in a field that's of great personal interest -- a remarkable opportunity. For millions around the world who lack access to quality teaching, the MOOC-backers are right: This is a revolution.

Yet I also got a better handle on precisely what MOOCs can't do, and what would be missing from a college education comprised of them entirely.

The first thing I learned is why so few who start MOOCs finish them: They're hard. When a class is free and doesn't generally produce a credential it takes real self-discipline (or a promise to your editor to write about the experience) to make yourself keep up. These MOOCs simulate a full course at a top-tier university, which means a minimum of 2-3 hours per week of lectures, plus quizzes, homework and reading. Most difficult of all, you have to keep up for 12 to 15 weeks, which is a lot harder for people like me, with a toddler at home and a day job, than it was when I was a full-time college student.

Technologically, the experience was fairly simple and elegant. An online "dashboard" gives you access to videos, quizzes and other resources. You quickly fall into a routine: a video lecture segment by one of the professors (filmed in MIT's on-campus version of the course), typically lasting 5 to 15 minutes, followed by exercises to make sure you got the key points, plus a longer homework assignment after each week.

Is it better to be in the room with a lecturer? Probably, in the same way the multi-sensory personal experience of a play can be more powerful than a film. But in-person lectures also have disadvantages. The research is pretty clear that students tune out after a while. The 5-15 minute intervals make it easier to stay focused. Neurologically, answering a few questions about every 15 minutes and then at the end of a week is a pretty effective way to make things stick. And being able to hit pause or rewind, or speed things up, is a nice bonus.

But while MOOCs can speed up and slow down classroom time a bit, courses like this don't fundamentally alter it. As in traditional classes, MOOCs generally operate on a cohort model -- the group starts together, and generally advances at the same speed, regardless of ability. Unlike some online courses, which offer self-paced options, MOOCs generally stick to this model. I found this frustrating, as did others in the class. One week I had a work trip and couldn't complete the assignments, so took a couple zeroes. But there was no option to work ahead one week, or catch up after. If the point is to have convenient access to the material, why the tightly constrained schedule?

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