education's digital future

MOOCs: A review—are edX and Coursera the future of university education?

Pretty much everybody’s gotten on board the MOOC bandwagon. MIT says its edX platform for “Massive Open Online Courses,” as they’re called, heralds a “revolution in education.” Stanford professors Andrew Ng SM ’98 and Daphne Koeller, who cofounded edX competitor Coursera, have similar ambitions for their startup — and 33 universities have joined with them so far. Political commentators are excited, too: “Let the revolution begin,” proclaimed Thomas L. Friedman in The New York Times.

Despite the hype, MOOC providers do acknowledge that robust online education is in its infancy, and as The Times and NPR describe it, there are “kinks to be worked out.” Universities that offer online courses through edX or Coursera rightly worry about how exams will be administered, how cheaters will be identified, and how grading will be scaled to hundreds of thousands of students in a single course. A lot of smart people are coming up with clever ways to address all those problems, and more.

But few from these universities or in the media have stopped to seriously and publicly ask: Never mind the “kinks,” how do we know these courses are any good?

I could take Anant Agarwal, edX president and former CSAIL chief, on his word: “We will not water down the courses,” he says. “They will continue to be MIT-hard or Harvard-hard.” Or Coursera, which says on its website that “you will watch lectures taught by world-class professors, learn at your own pace, test your knowledge, and reinforce concepts through interactive exercises.”

But this is a revolution we’re talking about, here — there’s no room for error. The only way to really be sure that this stuff is great teaching is to actually take some courses. So I did.

I had two main goals in doing so. First, a side-by-side of courses from two leading MOOC providers can help prospective students make informed choices about which courses to take. Second, like any college courses, MOOCs benefit from critical, independent, and public evaluation from people who don’t have a stake in their outcome.

That second point is especially critical at a time when universities are starting to fundamentally rethink how they educate. What traditions from centuries of brick-and-mortar teaching should be transferred online, and what should we throw out? What worked well about old teaching models, and what can be improved?

6.00x and Machine Learning

Fully and comprehensively evaluating edX (now offering 13 courses) and Coursera (217 courses) would mean taking hundreds of online classes. Instead, I chose one from each to be examples of the experience: edX’s 6.00x (Introduction to Computer Science and Programming), via MITx, and Coursera’s Machine Learning, via Stanford. It is important to note that, just like traditional college courses, your mileage may vary depending upon your interest in the subject and who’s teaching it....

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