Properly motivated, I could have worked my way through an amount of MIT online course material at a level of rigor that would compare well to the knowledge, wisdom, and critical thinking skills with which the average undergraduate at a respectable college matriculates into the world. It would have cost me nothing. For about $1,600 I could get 32 certificates for all the work I did.
Technically my certificates in computer science were issued under the authority of MITx, which is part of the edX consortium of more than 90 international partners, including Harvard, MIT, Oxford, Berkeley, University of Chicago, Dartmouth, Princeton, and Penn. The consortium offers free educational content through MOOCs (massive open online course). Harvard and MIT founded the project in 2012 with a mission to offer accessible education to people everywhere and improve the quality of teaching and research.
My First Online Immersion
After many years of managing information technology, I wanted to learn fundamental, classical computer science. I knew a lot about building and maintaining information systems. I was proficient in several programming languages and data management technologies. But computer science — computational thinking — is a different matter.
My other goal was to experience what it was like to learn something in a MOOC. When I finished graduate school in 1989, class assignments were still tacked to a bulletin board in the library, and we used the card catalog, stored in oak cabinets, to find books. In the intervening years, I have used more and more digital resources in the Ancient Greek classes I have taught, and I have used online materials for my own professional growth and support, but this would be my first immersion in a purely online classroom.
Looking for a Face in the Cloud
Learning is a social behavior. There are a few people who happily pursue their interests in solitude, but I would argue that even the solitary scholars are engaging with others, alive or long dead, through literature, scholarship, music, art, and other media. Most of us seek each other’s company. We take classes; we form cohorts and reading groups; we attend conferences and seminars; we enroll in programs. We find friends and colleagues with whom we share our passions.
MOOCs, however, are lonely. My classes had a community discussion board that was occasionally helpful, and a Facebook page that wasn’t. I never got to know my classmates. They had weird handles and there were thousands of them. I built no relationships with anyone who was participating. The voices of my fellow students, whoever they were, did help me in one important way. They cried out in protest at the difficulty of the material. We were all feeling the same pain even if we were strangers.
Every lecture was well prepared, well performed, well-lit, and perfectly edited. Whereas a college lecture is about an hour long, these were broken up into 5 to 10 minute segments followed by exercises. I spent much more time doing than listening or reading. And what time I did spend listening was delightful and engaging because of the high production value of the short lectures. The lecture style of teaching is disparaged these days. But these concise, professionally produced, and well-rehearsed performances show that a lecture can be a powerful learning tool.
Did it matter that there was a teacher’s face on the screen? Absolutely. A face, a voice, a personality, a sense of humor, a style — these things were very important in keeping me focused and motivated, even though the transcripts, slide shows, and demonstrations were all available online. You could certainly skip the lecture and read the transcript, which scrolls automatically to the right of the talking professor. But the human connection makes a difference.
The Many Barriers to Completion
In 2014, almost 20,000 people viewed MITx Introduction to Computer Science, but only 1,500 completed the course and got certified. The traditional barriers to participation are gone. You don’t have to get admitted to MIT, pay MIT’s tuition, attend class at a certain time and place. No one watches over you.
Yet the barriers to completion remain. The course claims to be as difficult online as it is in on campus in Cambridge, MA. According to the official description the course runs for nine weeks and demands approximately 15 hours per week. It is not self-paced. Assignments and exams have due dates and there are no extensions. The material is difficult, as indicated by this “welcome” message to the first problem set:
"You're taking an introductory course to computer science from MIT. The work will be difficult. That's by design. It will take you a lot of time. You will struggle and be confused in the process. That's all part of the MIT learning process. This is part of our teaching philosophy, and it will help you develop skills to solve complex, hard, and open-ended problems in the future."
They aren’t kidding about “open-ended problems.” Remember that feeling you got sometimes as an undergraduate on an exam: “Did we cover this material in class?” That feeling came over me regularly. Since the lectures and demonstrations are recorded, I could review the material to see if I had missed something. In most cases I had not. The material had not been covered, but MITx students, just like regularly enrolled MIT students, are expected to think and learn independently.
Each lecture in the course was a new topic. Gaps were not filled. Failure, and the opportunity to learn from it, was abundant. Finally solving a complex problem after hours of trying and failing produced an adrenaline rush. Running out of time while working on a problem set turned me back into an anxious undergraduate racing for a deadline. It was thrilling and intimidating.
The pace of the course and the automated system of grading were daunting. There were some multiple choice and short answer questions, but the greater part of the graded work required me to create complete, functioning pieces of code. You write it and test it on your machine, and then you paste it into the auto-grader’s submission box and click the submit button. The auto-grader runs several tests on your code and then spits back a report of how many tests your work passed and how many it failed, along with a short description of the problem for failed tests. Between 15 and 30 attempts are permitted. Partial credit is allotted for any tests that are passed. Work must be submitted before the deadline to get credit. The pressure is on. As advertised, “The work will be difficult.”
A Rich Educational Patchwork
Online learning permeates our life. Whether you want to change the flapper valve on your toilet or earn a master’s degree in library science, chances are you will use online tools and resources. I have produced dozens of short, instructional videos for faculty, staff, and parents on how to use my school’s information system. My son, a gifted mathematician, skipped two grades of math in middle school by working through several units in algebra using ALEKS math under the supervision of the mathematics department chair at his school. Before a recent trip to Greece, I spent months rebuilding my language skills using Rosetta Stone.
Good teachers are bricoleurs. They stitch together various methods and approaches. Blended learning has become part of our rich educational patchwork. The social element and the existence of a vibrant, curious learning community remain the foundations of learning. Students learn when they are with other students who are learning and with teachers who are serving as guides and witnesses.