An education from MIT, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Berklee, Princeton and other prestigious institutions is just a click away. Their free online courses make dreams come true, finds out Esther Elias
On a spring day in September 2012, Anant Agarwal , a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology taught a course called Circuits and Electronics. Unlike his typical class of small numbers, 1,55,000 students across the world tuned in online to take notes. It was the beginning of Edx — Harvard and MIT’s initiative to take top-class education beyond physical barriers. Today, self-directed learners worldwide are acquiring knowledge of everything from differential equations to art history and taught by the world’s best educators.
Welcome to the world of MOOCs — massive open online courses — with structured lectures and syllabi that extend from a few weeks to several months.
Edx today is among the world’s top providers of MOOCs, offering 15 courses, ranging from ‘Ancient Greek Hero’ to ‘Human Health and Global Environmental Change’. Also ranked high among MOOC providers is Coursera, with its three million ‘Courserians’ attending 300-plus courses in five languages from 62 universities world-wide.
Currently, Indians are the third largest category of Courserians. Unlike traditional online subject tutorials, MOOCs are time bound. For instance, health reporter Elizabeth John, taking Coursera’s ‘Community Change in Public Health’ course taught by Johns Hopkins, says her course extends from for six weeks, with four-six hours of work each week. Coursera categories its courses by their starting date, into 20 broad subjects including law, medicine and humanities. Each course comes with a brief outline of course content, a week-by-week breakdown of syllabus, a suggested reading list and the minimal subject background required to understand the course. Similarly, MOOC provider Udacity classifies its offerings into Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced under five subjects — Business, Computer Science, Mathematics, Physics and Psychology.
The teaching methods across MOOCs range from video recordings of traditional blackboard-and-chalk lectures, to live demonstrations, virtual tours, animations and graphics. “Their lectures are precise and provide enough material to take the learning forward,” says pharmacist Amyn Sopariwalla from Mumbai.
MOOCs are also founded on the education principle of ‘connectivism’. Since learners can take multiple courses from multiple universities simultaneously, the learning experience becomes one of making cross-connections across subject boundaries. “I started off mostly with Computer Science MOOCs, because that was my area of study, but then later explored the humanities and philosophy,” says Devavrat Ravetkar from Pune.
Online learners are mostly either school students looking to advance their knowledge with university-level material or college students broadening their current speciality.
“MOOCs helped me update the material I’d learnt in college. Since MOOC participants are also from across the world, we learn of the latest developments in different countries,” says Amyn. Some MOOCs evaluate learning through multiple-choice questions and others through peer-reviewed assignments. Most MOOCs also provide a certificate of completion from the university conducting the course.
One of the biggest advantages to MOOCs though, is that it introduces the learner to like-minded individuals from different cultures through platforms such as discussion forums for group interaction explains Amyn. “You make global connections by sharing knowledge. Even project collaborations are just a Skype talk away.”
In the few years that MOOCs have been around, they have been touted as the next big learning revolution. While enrolment to these courses, as the name suggests, have been ‘massive’, the numbers completing courses are far fewer. Among the many reasons cited for this are that few MOOCs offer one-on-one interaction with the teacher as the teacher-student ratio is large. Moreover, some MOOC-takers have found that they simply videograph a brick-and-mortar class instead of teaching innovatively.
For the sake of learning
“I didn’t complete my History and Philosophy Course because I just didn’t have the time to,” says Gabriel H. from Chennai. Interestingly, some have ‘audited’ courses — listened in on lectures and done the readings — but not taken the final tests because they were out more for the learning experience than a completion certificate.
“I’ve signed up for every single course that Coursera has offered because I know that even if I can’t do it right now, the course material is archived for those who sign up. It’s like having a personal online library of learning resources,” says Devavrat.
For all its advantages, MOOCs are still in their teething phase across the world. Thus far they’ve succeeded in throwing open internationally renowned learning resources for free to anyone with an internet connection and a desire to learn.
For those looking for non-certificate free online courses, websites such as Open Culture provide links to hundreds suc. Dedicated YouTube channels and iTunes tutorials are also available. There really has never been a better time in education history to take charge of your own learning.