May 18, 2013 Leave a comment
“The basis of a reliable education, it would seem, is quality control, not circumstance” – New Yorker, Laptop U
I’ve been listening to the band Silversun Pickups a lot recently. I first heard them about five years ago when my friend introduced me to them during my “indie/alternative” music phase. Back then I didn’t like them too much. But now the sound of distorted guitars, strange effects, and a guy’s voice sounding like a girl’s is really pleasing for some reason. It may be that I like them because they’re music sounds exactly like their name makes you think they would sound.
My jamming seshes listening to Silversun Pickups has been complemented with foray into Massively Open Online Courses (moocs) and other random free learning environments. Throughout the past year, the appearance of free online courses offered by higher institutions of learning has exploded and I wanted to get a first hand experience with how they operate. Over at the site Coursera, I signed up for two classes, Data Science and Operations Management, offered by the University of Washington and University of Pennsylvania respectively.
The Data Science course is about how big data works and the problems that arise with managing it. It’s supposed to be an introduction into managing data and learning the best of ways of working with it. However, I couldn’t figure out how to do the second problem on the homework assignment. After wasting a few futile answers trying to solve the problem, I decided to look for another course. What I came across was a course title Introduction to Databases given by Stanford. It was a course that had already been completed, so I could just access all the materials, lectures, assignments, forums and work through it at my own pace. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past few nights between the hours of 11 and 3AM. Turns out I actually can be productive at night, assuming I wake up at noon.
In the three short days I’ve been working on Databases, I’ve learned quite a lot. It definitely helps that I’ve taken a programming course before, but this may be just as difficult as my course at CMU was (maybe not as time intensive). The benefit I have here, is I can consistently repeat video lecturers, download the powerpoint slides, and access the forums where students have probably voiced the same problems I currently have. Essentially I’m given all the tools to learn a material, and then I can parse through them utilizing was is best for me to learn, and on my own time.
This all holds true for the Operations Management course as well. The professors is a German man, and his accent makes the lectures much more entertaining to watch. There was also a night I stayed up until 3:30 trying to figure out a homework assignment. Personally, I like being able to work on something with no time constraints and get lost in it. That’s when I fully understand something. So with these homework assignments that take me a few hours into the night, I might struggle, but I eventually find and understand the solution because I haven’t been pressed for or worried about time… unlike problem sets at school.
The big question flying around the grounds of higher education these days is whether these moocs are going to affect higher education and where they are going to go. There are universities that are wholeheartedly embracing this new medium of teaching and reaching thousands of students, but even in those environments some professors are speaking against it. In fact, Amherst voted not to accept Harvard’s invitation to join its EdX program. I can most definitely see online courses supplementing in class material, however I don’t really see how a set standard of learning can be achieved across the internet. There will undoubtedly be devoted individuals that can take more out of online classes than most people will take out of courses at a private university, and the reverse is true. But whether it can be proven that online courses can provide a quality education and sufficient student engagement remains to be seen. Also, as the article above touches on, how will the future of graduate programs fare?
I don’t have answers. I take moocs because I have the free time and want to learn skills that I believe may be valuable to me later on for either a job or personal projects. Maybe later I’ll branch out into courses that intrigue me just because. Until then, and until moocs can become and accepted standard with quality control, I’ll be sitting in a physical building with a hundred other engineering students.