Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Meet the students - An interview with Jonathan Haber

Degree of Freedom chronicles the attempt to learn the equivalent of a four-year philosophy degree in twelve months using only free online resources.
The Good MOOC interviews professional MOOC junkie Jonathan Haber.

  • Can you introduce yourself?
First off, I'm a big fan of your blog and have especially liked your contributions to the MOOC conversation concerning how this story is playing out internationally.
My own background is in professional test design, education and curriculum development, so in many ways my professional career has been leading up to this project.  I live in the Boston area and after selling a company and working a few years for one of the major higher ed publishers, I decided to try my hand on a few independent research projects.
I completed a curriculum project last year that used the 2012 US election to teach critical thinking skills, and that effort introduced me to MOOCs which have become the focus of my current Degree of Freedom project.

Degree of Freedom began once I realized that the many conversations going on about MOOCs and other forms of free learning did not include the perspective of someone who had taken enough courses from enough sources from beginning to end to evaluate how well they worked as teaching tools.
Since a lot of these conversations were centered on important topics (like whether or not MOOCs should be given real college credit), it struck me that policymakers needed input not just from teachers or students involved with 1-2 classes, but someone who could provide insight based on a comprehensive, student centric experience.

  • How did you come up with the idea and what are you hoping to achieve?
The idea originated after taking my first MOOC class (Coursera's Think Again class on logic and argumentation) after my critical thinking project wrapped up and discovering that MOOC really did represent something new and different.
But to put that discovery to the test, I decided to see if it was possible to take all of the courses need to learn the equivalent of a four year BA degree using only free learning resources. I've chosen to do it in one year vs. four, partly to see if it can be done, but mostly because we need the information my project is generating now, not in four years time.
In addition to leaning what I can by taking 32 courses that meet the requirements for a degree (in philosophy), my main goal is to generate enough feedback via and associated newsletter and podcast to provide that student perspective needed to inform important discussions regarding the MOOC experiment.

  • Has the experience yielded any surprising findings so far?

I don't know if it was surprising, but I have discovered that if you put the effort into a MOOC class (listen to all the lectures, do all of the reading, homework and other assignments), you can get the equivalent of a semester worth of learning from a non-traditional online class.
That said, MOOCs still have a long way go in making the experience consistent, especially with regard to the level of challenge they provide a student.  Some classes are quite demanding with regard to assignments such as papers and assessments, but others have not made enough effort in this area.

  • What's your analysis of the current state of the online learning?
As I mentioned, someone with a desire to learn can definitely learn the equivalent of what they'd get from a traditional college course, not just from MOOCs but from other free learning resources such as the recorded materials and curated content you can get from places like iTunes U or
But students (and educational decision makers) need to know that not all of these educational tools are equivalent.  For instance, I've taken some MOOC classes that were definitely designed to match the content and rigour of an equivalent college class, while others are meant to give students an easy onramp into new subjects like programming or literature. And it's not entirely clear what type of course you're getting into before it starts.

I should also point out that if you add up the number of available free courses, you're probably looking at a course catalog 1/3 to 1/2 as large as what you'd see at a medium-size state university. So we still have a long way to go just in making enough courses available for free learning to become a viable alternative to a traditional college education.

  • Where do see higher education going in the medium to long-term future with free online resources?
First, I'd separate resources such as MOOCs that are trying (if sometimes unevenly) to package together all of the components (lectures, reading, assignments, tests, etc.) into the equivalent of a college course from sites like Codecademy and Khan Academy that provide smaller increments of educational content that students can use to construct their own learning experience or brush up on particular skills. Both provide important and powerful contributions to education, but I'm mostly interested in how online course equivalents will impact higher education.
Making predictions is difficult, given how new this phenomenon is.  Right now, I'd say it's difficult to impossible for someone to obtain an actual degree only using free learning resources (vs. leaning the equivalent of what you'd get in that degree), and I expect that it will only be a few exceptional, entrepreneurial learners that will try.
But I do expect MOOCs to accelerate a fragmentation of higher educational already underway. For instance, in the US it's becoming typical for students to take a gap year before going to college, or take time off along the way.  And more older people are re-entering college later in life or exploring lifelong learning through things like extension school classes.  And flexible, high-quality learning resources such as MOOCs can help facilitate and accelerate these new alternatives.

  • There's a fair bit of MOOC skepticism out there... Do you have anything to say about that?
That skepticism is based on the same limited information as was the original MOOC over-enthusiasm.  At first, the huge enrolments in these classes got people asking why we still needed brick-and-mortar colleges, but once the first classes were given and the completion rates turned out to be less than 10%, people used that figure to say that MOOCs were worthless.
But better information might tell us how many enrolees had successful auditing experiences (just listening to lectures) vs. those who did all the work, dropped out, or just signed up to get something for nothing.   We're just starting to see this kind of data, and this will help inform analysis of MOOC success or failure based on something other than speculation.
For my project, the bottom line measurement is learning achieved.  This should provide another base of data that I hope will ground further analysis of the MOOC phenomenon in reality vs. hype or hysteria.

  • Which are you favourite MOOCs so far and why?
Interestingly, the two classes I've liked the best are the ones that demanded the most of me. This included HarvardX's The Greek Hero, a legendary course taught by Harvard's Greg Nagy which has really done everything right in terms of rethinking the structure of the lecture for video, and building a technology-based course around close reading of important and challenging classical texts.

The other course I liked was Coursera's Modern and the Postmodern taught by Michael Roth, President of Wesleyan. In addition to also being the equivalent of a course the professor has taught for years, that class makes pretty serious demands on the student – in this case by asking us to write 6-9 papers (which were peer graded – peer grading being a whole other topics I've discussed frequently at the Degree of Freedom blog).

  • Keeping in mind your best MOOC experience so far. How would you improve on the course?
While I still have a long way to go before I've completed my own experiment, I think I've obtained enough experience to say that those developing MOOCs need to put more time into content components such as assessment and assignments to make courses more challenging. I think there's an assumption that if they make things too hard, more students will drop out but I'm not sure that's the case and, at the very least, I don't think I'm alone in getting more out of a course that has demanded more from me.

The other thing I would suggest is that students interested in taking a course try to  build their own smaller learning cohort (either live or virtual) that can take the course together.  This can provide a community for discussion as well as a set of fellow students who can spur each other on.  While MOOC providers offer options for meet ups, I'd recommend students take the initiative to create these micro-communities on their own, something I'm planning to experiment with in courses I'll be starting in the Fall.

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