I’ve taken a few online courses throughout my education thus far, the most recent being a medical language class that was essentially just about learning the vocabulary necessary for working in a hospital or clinic. Social interaction was not required or even encouraged. It was a content only course. I took it through a small and incredibly economical community college in Cincinnati that was made up primarily of students just out of high school or returning to school after having worked for 10-20 years. I was kind of in a no-man’s land in between. Interestingly, in the classes I attended in person, some of which students from my online course were also enrolled in, I had a very different social perspective than most. I had gone to a “traditional” four (five) year university, lived in a dorm briefly, studied on campus, etc relatively recently, and my classmates at the community college had either never done that or done so 20 years previous. My assumption of community and study groups in classes wasn’t part of their vision, it was a bit more business for them as they were usually coming to classes between shifts at work or while their kids were at daycare. Without going into all of the social details of our lives, the point is that they directly effected the way that the academics were delivered and absorbed.
It was a couple of years after the medical language online course that I heard about Coursera for the first time, specifically the AI course at Stanford. I really wanted to be a part of the beginning of this new form of education, as well as study a subject that was very related to my undergrad education in engineering and physics. However, I would have needed a superhuman level of motivation to fully participate in the class as I was enrolled in 18 in-class university credits at the time and was already low on sleep. I listened to the lectures for a few weeks but never truly got involved in the material or class community. I immediately questioned how other full-time students or folks with full-time jobs and/or families, etc, could find the time and drive to fully participate and “pass” the course? This necessary motivation, after the lacking or perhaps just different social experience I encountered in the medical language course, leads to the second of three big questions in my mind regarding the future of online higher education.
To get a full MOOC experience I’ve decided to enroll in Coursera’s Introduction to Philosophy course. I chose it because pure Philosophy is a subject I have little experience in…and because, so far I love how the fellow from Edinburgh talks about “thinking about thinking” as he is doing in my ear while I type this. I want to really force myself to get involved in this short 7-week course so I’ve scheduled a Meetup event at my apartment (where I will obviously have to be) to talk about the class and the experience of a MOOC with others. I’m not sure if anyone will show up…since that would require extra motivation and the desire for an in-person social experience. Regardless, I’m going to try to participate in the class the way I personally want it to go. I’ve gotten a great start actually. After watching the first weeks lectures I dove in to the discussion forums to see what the community was up to. Second on the list of top discussions (rated by voting activity and participation) was a forum for the discussion of the significance of religion, or more specifically lack of religion, atheism, to the class and subject matter. As a scientist and follower of fact and logic, I am also an atheist, so this discussion immediately caught my attention. I won’t go into my personal beliefs or the myriad of topics covered, some relevant, some not at all, covered in this forum but the point is, it was very socially significant to me. Obviously I’ve read and participated in religious forums before, but only when specifically meaning to. This experience was much different as it came about while I was attempting to study something else entirely…which ended up actually being the same thing because philosophy is basically defined as “how we think about things.” The magnitude and speed of contribution to this discussion (which was only one of many many forum topics) showed where the MOOC really has an advantage over the common classroom. Simply put, it is a classroom of 3,000 or 30,000 cultured (sometimes at least) opinions from around the world, instead of 30 somewhat more homogenous opinions from within the 20 mile radius of the community college campus.