HOLMES: MOOCing magic


ECON 115 has got to be the most boring class I’ve taken at Yale. I spent more time snapping photos of my friends (and strangers) dozing off than I did listening. You can go ahead and judge me for being a poor student, or — as more and more in the world have been doing — you can reconsider the method by which I was taught. As Nathan Heller wrote in a New Yorker article last May, “Lecturing can seem a rote endeavor even at its best — so much so that one wonders why the system has survived for so long.”

Tao Tao Holmes

ECON 115 as we know it — supply and demand curves projected onto a lecture hall screen — may not survive much longer. Online education, in the form of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, is transforming centuries of traditional learning, and at lightning speed. The main MOOC platforms, EdX, Udacity and Coursera, have together attracted tens of millions of students from Kentucky to Kyrgyzstan eager to master basic programming, pointillism or “A Brief History of Humankind.”

Yale, though it launched Open Yale Courses in 2006, was embarrassingly late to the MOOC bandwagon (embarrassingly late in today’s world, meaning by more than one year). Open Yale Courses are merely filmed lectures, whereas successful MOOCs are elaborate technological concoctions that intertwine a variety of teaching methods and media.

Last week, I got the chance to eat dinner with co-founder of Coursera Daphne Koller, a computer science professor at Stanford and total boss. She debunked a number of myths and misconceptions about online education. Koller reminded us that 60 percent of college students are commuters and told us that Coursera courses, when used by colleges rather than individuals, aren’t meant to replace “brick and mortar” lectures but to supplement them.

Koller asked us: Does every professor who teaches a lecture need to write his or her own textbook? Well, no — that would be absurd. Why then do they all need to create their own individual lectures for the same exact course, or re-narrate the same syllabus for the ninth year in a row?

Points well made. But what’s so much better about MOOCs?

Well, first off, they are “designed according to the way the brain actually learns,” according to an October 2012 article in TIME magazine by Amanda Ripley, who looks specifically at a physics class offered through Udacity. In this online class, the video stops every three or four minutes to ask a question, making it difficult for you to disengage (i.e. scroll through a Buzzfeed about gerbils). The people behind Udacity know that humans like immediate feedback and the satisfaction of being correct, so you’re allowed to keep trying each problem until you get it right. Studies have also shown that college students can focus for only 10 to 18 minutes before their minds need active engagement with new information, adds Ripley. “Researchers know a lot about how the brain learns, and it’s shocking how rarely that knowledge influences our education system.” Talk about the bewildering survival of the 75-minute, monotonic, uninterrupted, one-way lecture.

Sebastian Thrun, co-founder of Udacity, thought he’d test out the effectiveness of the whole MOOC approach. He told his Stanford students they could take his class (“Artificial Intelligence”) either online or by attending his lectures. Those who took the MOOC version outscored the class average in previous years by a full letter grade. None of the top performers enrolled in his MOOC were Stanford students.

And if you were wondering, courses in the humanities and social sciences can translate just as smoothly into MOOC format. Take Harvard professor Gregory Nagy’s class, “The Ancient Greek Hero,” for instance. In the New Yorker article, Heller described Nagy thinking about each section “as a short film” and trying to figure out “how to dramatize the production.” Transforming his brick and mortar lecture into an online form, Nagy said, forced him to study his teaching more than before.

But what about Yale? What does free, high-quality online education mean for us and our collegiate gothic?

Not too much, really. “I think the top 50 schools are probably safe,” said Udacity co-founder David Concedes in his interview with Ripley. “There’s a magic that goes on inside a university campus that, if you can afford to live inside that bubble, is wonderful.” As Yalies, we’re privy to four years of this magic. Seriously, this magic is even better than the stuff they have over at Durmstrang and Beauxbatons.

But ECON 115 is still not very magical. Neither are a lot of lecture courses, most of them dreaded prerequisites. I don’t see Yale replacing its big lectures with MOOCs any day soon, but that doesn’t mean professors can’t incorporate the successful aspects of online teaching into the product that they deliver us from their lecterns.

Tao Tao Holmes is a senior in Branford College. Contact her at taotao.holmes@yale.edu.