More than five million students worldwide have registered for classes.

You can forget about the Socratic method when it comes to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s), like those offered by Coursera, Udacity and edX.



The professor is, in most cases, out of students’ reach, only slightly more accessible than the pope or Thomas Pynchon. Several of my Coursera courses begin by warning students not to e-mail the professor. We are told not to “friend” the professor on Facebook. If you happen to see the professor on the street, avoid all eye contact (well, that last one is more implied than stated). There are, after all, often tens of thousands of students and just one top instructor.

Perhaps my modern history professor, Philip D. Zelikow, of the University of Virginia, put it best in his course introduction, explaining that his class would be a series of “conversations in which we’re going to talk about this course one to one” — except that one side (the student’s) doesn’t “get to talk back directly.” I’m not sure this fits the traditional definition of a conversation.

On the other hand, how can I really complain? I’m getting Ivy League (or Ivy League equivalent) wisdom free. Anyone can, whether you live in South Dakota or Senegal, whether it’s noon or 5 a.m., whether you’re broke or a billionaire. Professors from Harvard, M.I.T. and dozens of other schools prerecord their lectures; you watch them online and take quizzes at your leisure.

The MOOC classrooms are growing at Big Bang rates: more than five million students worldwide have registered for classes in topics ranging from physics to history to aboriginal worldviews.

It creates a strange paradox: these professors are simultaneously the most and least accessible teachers in history. And it’s not the only tension inherent in MOOCs.

MOOC boosters tend to speak of these global online classes as if they are the greatest educational advancement since the Athenian agora, highlighting their potential to lift millions of people out of poverty. Skeptics — including the blogger and University of California, Berkeley, doctoral student Aaron Bady — worry that MOOCs will offer awatered-down education, give politicians an excuse to gut state school budgets, and harm less prestigious colleges and universities.

To see for myself, I signed up for 11 courses. The bulk were on Coursera, which was founded in 2011 by two computer science professors at Stanford and financed by John Doerr, the famed Silicon Valley venture capitalist, among others — but I also dabbled with courses sponsored by edX and Udacity. Here, my report card on the current state of MOOCs.


With the exception of a couple of clunkers — my plodding nutrition professor might want to drink more organic coffee before class — most of my MOOC teachers were impressive: knowledgeable, organized and well respected in their field. They were also, to the best of their abilities, entertaining. My genetics professor, at one point, used a Charles Darwin bobblehead doll as a puppet, and my philosophy professor wore steampunk goggles when talking about the logic of time travel. A for effort, folks.

I learned something new almost every lecture — ah, so that’s what a Nash equilibrium is — even if I forgot it a day later, which I often did.

My fellow students occasionally trashed the teachers on Facebook (“ludicrous!” one wrote about a philosophy lecture), but for the most part, they seemed to like them. Sometimes, they really liked them. The discussion boards about the professors often read like a tween’s One Direction fan site.

“I think my boyfriend is jealous of how charmed I am by the professor,” wrote one of Mr. Zelikow’s students on a discussion thread devoted to his endearing smile. Another added, it’s gotten to the point where “when I read things and give them a voice, instead of giving them the default Morgan Freeman voice, it is now the prof’s.”

On my philosophy discussion board, a student gave some deep thought to our professor’s supercool sweater.

The pop star analogy is not trivial. While MOOCs are a great equalizer when it comes to students around the world, they are a great unequalizer when it comes to teachers.

MOOCs are creating a breed of A-list celebrity professors who have lopsided sway over the landscape of ideas. I pity the offline teachers. I fear one of the casualties of these online courses might be the biodiversity of the academic ecosystem.


MOOCs shift control to the student. I watched lectures while striding on my treadmill, while riding a train, while eating a spinach salad. I watched them on double-speed when my slow-talking cosmology professor lectured, and on three-fourths speed when my British epistemology professor tommy-gunned out his syllables. I gave up binge-viewing of “Homeland” Season 2 and instead dove into game theory. I paused to inspect whether my scientific literacy professor really wrote the word “pecision” instead of “precision” on the whiteboard. He did. I tried not to feel smug.

As my digression-loving finance professor, Gautam Kaul, of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, aptly put it: “I’m hyper. I’m nuts … The good news is, you can always skip parts you don’t enjoy. Whereas if you were in the class you’d have to suffer me throughout.”

Regardless of the convenience, you still have to carve out time for the lectures. Which is one reason the dropout rate for MOOCs is notoriously high: Coursera’s bioelectricity course, taught by a Duke professor, saw an astounding 97 percent of students fail to finish. My dropout rate was lower, but only a bit. I signed up for 11 courses, and finished 2: “Introduction to Philosophy” and “The Modern World: Global History since 1760.” (Well, to be honest, I’m not quite done with history — I’m still stuck in the 1980s.) Not coincidentally, these were two courses with lighter workloads and less jargon.

Problem is, there’s no cost to quitting, no social stigma for short-term dabbling. Perhaps they need a virtual dunce cap.


As I mentioned, I had little to no contact with the professors. Not that I didn’t try. I entered a lottery to join an exclusive 10-person Google hangout with my genetics professor, the Duke University biologist Mohamed A. Noor. I lost. My cosmology professor,S. George Djorgovski, of Caltech, held office hours on Second Life, the virtual world. But the professor told those of us who were Second Life virgins that we might not want to bother, since the software is complicated.

A handful of lucky students got responses from professors on the discussion boards, and a few handfuls more from teaching assistants. I was not among them. Perhaps I should have been more solicitous, like the student who offered to send one flu-ridden instructor camomile tea. The professor gamely responded that whiskey kills more bacteria.

For MOOCs to fulfill their potential, Coursera and its competitors will have to figure out how to make teachers and teaching assistants more reachable. More like local pastors, less like deities on high. To their credit, the MOOC providers seem aware of the problem and are experimenting with fixes, like recruiting experienced students to guide discussions.

Some reformers have suggested an online-offline hybrid model. Students in, say, Ecuador, could gather in a Quito classroom, watch the MOOC lectures on video, and then have a local teacher facilitate a discussion. As I learned in my science literacy course, it’s hard to predict what will work in the real world, but this seems worth testing.


As psychologists will tell you, if you don’t talk about what you’ve learned, the knowledge will evaporate. With MOOCs, there is no shortage of ways to connect with other students: Facebook, Google Plus, Skype, Twitter, Coursera discussion boards — even shutting your laptop and meeting a classmate in a three-dimensional Dunkin’ Donuts. Despite the variety, my peer interactions ranged from merely decent to unsatisfying.

Consider my history study group, which met at a Brooklyn diner. Well, “met” might be a generous verb. I showed up, but no one else did. A few days later, my Twitter study-buddy also blew me off.

The message boards were better. As always on the Internet, trolls abound, including one who griped about our philosophy professor’s Italian accent. But the message boards are also packed with smart, helpful people. When I asked my genetics group if there might be “an evolutionary reason why so many people refuse to accept evolution as fact,” I got thoughtful responses and a link to a scholarly article.

And yet, codger that I am, I still found the boards lacking. I agree with my fellow Coursera student Peter Dewitz, a former offline professor at the University of Virginia, who e-mailed me that online discussions denied him “the rapid exchange of ideas that a true discussion would afford. The written version is slow motion.”

Attempting fast-motion, I video-chatted twice with a clutch of students in my Google Plus modern history group. Our conversations on Haitian independence and the professor’s possible first-world biases were worthwhile and wonderfully international: a Filipino scientist told me about his country’s education system, and a Brazilian businessman shared a data point on his country’s pronounced wealth inequality.

But none of the interactions seemed as invigorating as late-night dorm-room discussions at my nonvirtual college in the late 1980s. (Maybe that’s fuzzy nostalgia on my part.) This might change, of course, as the technology improves: when Skype perfects a Hologram version of a grad student lounge — give it five years — I’ll be first in line.


Coursework comes in various forms: multiple-choice quizzes, essays and projects, like building a pendulum for my scientific literacy class. I took dozens of quizzes that ranged from stressful in a pleasurable way to stressful in a stressful way. The genetics problem sets in particular got my creaky brain thinking in ways it hadn’t since I was an undergrad, which I appreciated.

Of course, since students are taking quizzes without proctors, cheating is a big MOOC concern. As it should be. When I Googled some quiz questions for my genetics course — as a journalist, I swear — I found a Canadian Web site with the answers.

A company called ProctorU has designed software to allow its employees to monitor students taking quizzes via webcam. When it comes to cheating, the cat-and-mouse game is likely to play out for a while.

Most of the quizzes are graded instantly by computer, but a few assignments are judged by fellow students. I wrote an essay for my “Aboriginal Worldviews” course in which I had to describe an American ritual as if it were foreign to me (I chose birthday parties). Three of my peers graded the paper. They were kind over all, but I bristled at every slight. Who died and made you professor?


Am I glad I spent a semester attending MOOCs? Yes. Granted, my retention rate was low, and I can’t think of any huge practical applications for my newfound knowledge (the closest came when I included Erich Fromm’s notion of freedom in a piece for my day job at Esquire — before deleting it). Though one fellow “Introduction to Finance” student, an information technology consultant, told me he’s planning to include the course on his résumé, I probably won’t go that far.

But MOOCs provided me with the thrill of relatively painless self-improvement and an easy introduction to heady topics. And just as important, they gave me relief from the guilt of watching “Swamp People.”

As these online universities gain traction, and start counting for actual college course credit, they’ll most likely have enormous real-world impact. They’ll help in getting jobs and creating business ideas. They might just live up to their hype. For millions of people around the globe with few resources, MOOCs may even be life-changing.

As for whether MOOCs will ever totally replace colleges made of brick, mortar and ivy, however, count me as a skeptic. A campus still has advantages for those lucky enough to afford the tuition — networking being one. (Even dropouts like Mark Zuckerberg made key social connections at Harvard.) And an online college will never crack Playboy’s venerable annual list of top party schools.

Then again, I won’t be able to give a real expert opinion on this until next January. That’s when I’m taking the University of Wisconsin online course on “Globalizing Higher Education.”

Photo credit: The Guardian

Via New York Times