Diving Into the Wide World of MOOCs


My kids (age 11 and 13) and I have recently begun to explore the world of massive open online courses (MOOCs).  We now use the word as a verb.  As in…

“Emma, it’s time to MOOC”.

We also like to sing to prepare ourselves to MOOC.  As in…

“We’ve got to MOOC it MOOC it, we’ve got to MOOC it MOOC it”.

If you are a fan of the Madagascar movies, you know what I am talking about.

I recently created accounts on four different MOOC sites; Coursera, edX, Udacity, and Open2Study.  What brought this about was a missed opportunity when I was in college at Wellesley.  I was a science major (Biology) and I had to take math, chemistry, and physics courses to fulfill requirements, which left me little space for humanities classes in my schedule.  Wellesley, at the time (late 1980’s), had an amazing Art History introductory course, which was supposed to be very difficult and time consuming (the final was legendary), but a great experience.  I never took it, to my eternal regret.  So on an impulse one day I checked to see whether Wellesley had an Art History MOOC.

They did not.  I guess this is still reserved for paying customers.  But it got me looking around at the world of MOOCS, signing up for various sites, and enrolling in courses.  I was not looking for what I wanted to take per se, but what might be of interest to my 13 year old daughter, who has high functioning autism.  Emma is 13, as smart as they come, with a high interest in science (cosmology and biology have been favorites for years).  She also can be difficult to shepherd through life, and the expectations of life both at home and at school sometimes challenge her.  I lit upon the idea of MOOCs as a way to help develop her executive function skills (time management, organization, attention) while working on material in areas of her (sometimes obsessive) interests.

That was the original idea, but it has gone so much beyond that.  I may need an intervention soon.  Over the summer Emma and I finished two MOOCs (Introduction to the Universe and Epigenetic Control of Gene Expression).  This fall she and I will do From the Big Bang to Dark Energy (she loves cosmology!) and Human Evolution (offered by Wellesley, yeah!), Sam and I will do Preparation for Introductory Biology and Beginning Game Programming, and I will be doing Networked Life (my friend Mike is teaching this one) and A History of the World from 1300.

It sounds like a lot (and probably is a lot), but the beauty of MOOCs is that they are FREE, and you can put in as much effort as suits you.  Sam’s Biology MOOC is a great example.  They have a basics track (you watch videos and take quizzes) and a scholar’s track (you do other assignments as well).  I am doing the basics track with him, and it is perfect.  It also helps that the material is quite familiar to me, so I pause the videos to make sure he is following or to explain the material further, or I review the material with him afterwards.  But as an 11 year old he is getting a great introduction to basic concepts in biology and biochemistry such as DNA replication, the structure of the plasma membrane, and protein synthesis.  He may not remember most of the details, but when he hits the material in high school it won’t be the first time he has seen it.

Sam reviewing cellular structures.

Sam reviewing cellular structures.

As I said, it helps to be familiar with the material if you are using these online classes to supplement your child’s education.  Sam’s upcoming MOOC,  Beginning Game Programming, should be interesting, as I know nothing about computer programming.  Trying to take it may be full of fail, but again, it doesn’t matter.  We will just chalk it up to an error in judgement, and move on.  I sometimes have the opposite problem with Emma, as she got very bored with the introductory lecture for her cosmology MOOC, and started lecturing back at the screen.  Good practice though, since it was a chance to work on what is okay to do when you are bored in class.  Shouting back at the professor…not so good.

The MOOCS have been great for both kids in driving home the lesson that you need to keep up with your work, as the weekly quizzes close out after the due date, and you need to have watched all the weekly videos (usually 4 to 6) before then to pass the quiz.  It is a shift from the type of responsibility expected from students in middle and high school, where the progression of learning is mapped out by their teacher.  This puts the onus on the student to fit their work into their schedule and to budget their time, which is more reflective of what they will experience in college.

But the great thing about MOOCs is that you can access college level curriculum without the pressure of college.  If you lose interest or run out of time and can’t continue with a MOOC, you just quietly slink out of the back of the virtual classroom and no one is the wiser.  But if you are really gung ho, you can pay a fee (usually around $40) and get an official certificate of completion for the course.  I’m not sure how this will translate into real world credit; this is one of the aspects of MOOCs that is still evolving.

One final general observation about MOOCs is that the level of the material covered and the difficulty of the quizzes and assignments varies a lot, depending on the target audience.  Some are taught at a very high level with a lot of detail (the Epigenetics MOOC we took), versus others that are more about providing a general overview of a topic (Introduction to the Universe was more along this line).  Both types of courses have their purpose, and it would be good to understand which kind of MOOC you are signing up for, particularly if you are planning to take it along with a child.

There is a MOOC on just about anything.  Offered by colleges and universities all over the world.  We got to listen to Dr. Marnie Blewitt’s awesome Australian accent as she lectured to us about DNA methylation and nuclear compartmentalization.  My class on networks is being offered by the University of Pennsylvania.  Don’t be intimidated, just get online and sign up.  The learning is easy!

The completion certificate Emma and I earned for Astronomy, our first MOOC.

The completion certificate Emma and I earned for Astronomy, our first MOOC.


Filed under Education, Family, Science

3 responses to “Diving Into the Wide World of MOOCs

  1. Celia Abrams

    I am in awe of the interesting, stimulating and creative opportunities you continually pursue with Emma and Sammy. I always appreciate hearing from you about what you folks are up to. Send my love to everyone.
    Love Ceil

  2. brettmc

    As the person responsible for the learning and digital production for Open2Study I am really glad that you have put it to such wonderful use. Brett.

  3. Hi Brett, Thanks for looking at my post. We have been enjoying the MOOCs, tho now that we are in the thick of school we have slowed down a bit. It’s just amazing to me all of the learning that is available now on the internet. Students today really have the world at their fingertips.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s