Free Online Classes: Unlocking the Ivory Tower

Colleges flock to offer courses for all, but questions abound

Even those who have dropped out of MOOCs before finishing—Coursera won't release completion rates, but many individual courses have reported figures below 10 percent—have good things to say about the material available for free home learning. Grant Bremer, a Brooklyn resident who works in the financial industry, is perhaps a typical MOOC student in that he has started several classes, but finished none, something he blames on the demands of a full-time job and family. "I enjoyed it for those three weeks," he says. "I really love the content there—it's fantastic that I can interface with a professor from Stanford or Princeton. But it feels so distant and impersonal. It's just a series of YouTube lectures and multiple-choice questions."

Laura Gibbs, a literature professor at the University of Oklahoma, signed up for the same fantasy course as Segarra, for a different reason: She has taught online courses for years, though limited to about 30 students per class. "I love teaching online, and I think it has so much potential. Is 'massive' part of that potential or not? I'm really not sure."

Gibbs ended up blogging about her experience at, relating tales of the growing pains that strike when professors and students alike are thrown headlong into the mass Internet. Much of her ire was reserved for the Coursera discussion boards—the piece that is supposed to make MOOCs more than just another way to sit around in your pajamas and watch educational videos, yet which she says turned into an unmoderated free-for-all that included everything from basic questions going unanswered for weeks to Americans criticizing their U.K. classmates for using British spellings. Bremer is equally dismissive: "My first reaction to the discussion board was this was crap—a whole bunch of people saying, 'I'm from the West Coast!' 'I'm from Brazil!' There was a lot of noise to get through."

Krishna Chavda
Ng says he launched Coursera to bring college material to the masses.
Courtesy Coursera
Ng says he launched Coursera to bring college material to the masses.

It's a complaint that points to a deeper problem with the open aspect of MOOCs: If a large part of the value of a college education is the discussions you have with other students about the material, in a MOOC no one knows whether the student next to them, is, as it were, a dog. "At the university, you take a class, you have prerequisites," says Bremer. "There's an assumed level of competency. Yet there's none of that here."

While Gibbs says it can be fantastic to get people from around the world collaborating, she agrees that it can present a huge challenge as well: "People did show up at this class with all kinds of purposes in mind—some of which were like the purposes of a University of Michigan upper-division English major, and some of which were very different, like all the international students who just wanted to practice their English. Now, practicing English is a great thing to do, but it's not something that this professor, I don't think, had in mind when he designed the course or chose the books."

Ng says that making the discussion boards "more social" is at the top of his to-do list and notes that students are increasingly using Meetup to arrange face-to-face study groups, especially in major cities like New York. But other MOOC problems seem more inherent to the format. Grading is one of these. Because even modern adjuncts would balk at grading 30,000 papers in one sitting, Coursera has instead turned to a two-tier model: automated evaluation and peer grading.

Each has its drawbacks, say MOOC veterans. Automated scripts are, well, automated, and are best limited to subjects like math or engineering where multiple-choice exams are the norm. (It's generally agreed that MOOCs have a tougher time with humanities coursework; Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun has stated bluntly, "We are not doing humanities.") Yet even in strictly quantitative subjects like math, Bremer argues, multiple-choice grading for college-level courses leaves a lot to be desired, since there's no way to give partial credit, say, for a correctly reasoned answer undermined by a single flipped minus sign somewhere in the calculation.

To allow for more complicated assignments, such as essays, some Coursera courses have turned to peer grading, in which students mark up one another's papers and rate them on a scale of 0 to 3 for both form and content—arrived at, according to Ng, after determining that more detailed scales were too daunting for amateur graders.

Yet farming out the grading process to the masses comes with some knotty problems. In her blog, Gibbs detailed reader comments that ranged from useless ("Ug") to hostile ("My guess is you lived in one of the Carolinas where you neither spoke nor wrote a high quality of English")—something exacerbated, she says, by automated software that gives students credit for commenting on one another's work but which has no way of judging the quality of the comments.

Things can get even dicier, say MOOC students, when it comes to plagiarism, which many have worried will be the format's Achilles heel. Peer graders in Gibbs's class were directed by other students to use anti-plagiarism sites such as PlagTracker, which inaccurately flagged quotations from source material as plagiarized—leading to a backlash in which students pressed one another to promise not to check for plagiarism at all. And besides, adds Bremer, the penalties for violating an online honor code are minimal: "Are you going to lose your tuition? Are you going to go before the honor committee? No, you just open up another account and there you go."

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