Why MOOCs Are Bound to Disappoint

This week I watched the eighth and final set of lectures for “Introduction to Sustainability,” the Coursera MOOC I’ve been taking and chronicling over the past few weeks. This week’s topic was “measuring sustainability.” Seated before a camera, a photo of Utah’s Arches National Park behind him, Professor Tomkin opened his lecture just as he’s opened every lecture for the past seven weeks: “G’day. I’m Jonathan Tomkin from the University of Illinois,” pronounced with a smile and an Australian accent.

I’d like to meet Professor Tomkin. He seems friendly and fair-minded, the kind of professor whose office door would always be open. Periodically glancing at his notes on a computer screen to his left, he explained a slew of metaphoric footprints: carbon, water, and so on. He spoke clearly, if a little less articulately than in previous lectures. I wonder if all eight weeks’ lectures were filmed in one day. This week, he seemed tired and a little worn out, and, for the first time, less scripted. But he successfully led his audience through the various ways to measure the “sustainability” of particular actions, as he condensed the technical jargon we read in our open online sustainability textbook. Every few minutes, his image would give way to slides showing charts, definitions, or photos as he spoke.

As I watched the final videos, I couldn’t help comparing those lectures to the close of a semester at my alma mater. I’m not too long out of college, so the exercise didn’t tax my memory too badly. On the final day of class, seated at a desk, my classmates and I would listen to our professor’s closing thoughts, ask a lot of questions about the final, and exchange mutual thanks and farewells in case we lacked an opportunity at the exam.

In the MOOC, not much of that was the same. I sat at one end of my living room couch with headphones in while my college-student roommate sat at the other studying for midterms. Whether any of my classmates were watching those lectures simultaneously, I don’t know. Professor Tomkin didn’t talk about the final–which I appreciated, since that left more time to discuss ideas rather than logistics–but he did summarize the course and express his hope that our taking the MOOC proved as worthwhile as his making it. The main difference, though, between the presentation of my college classes and this MOOC was that I couldn’t reciprocate. I couldn’t tell Professor Tomkin what I appreciated about his course or ask him about the times I respectfully disagreed with him. Nor could I say goodbye.

So will I miss the MOOC? In some ways, yes. I became familiar with a host of sources I might not have otherwise perused, from an open textbook to United Nations reports to TED talks. I read about depleted fish stocks in Alaska and demographic transitions in Asia. I took two multiple-choice quizzes each week–painfully complicated, presumably to make it harder to cheat–that drilled into me the significance of j-shaped and s-shaped growth curves. And I had some valuable discussions, too. After my third post here last week, in which I mentioned a discussion thread I started on fracking, I learned that discussion thread struck a nerve. That thread on fracking eventually attracted 27 posts and 182 views–making it one of the most popular threads in the course–and remained active more than a week after I started it. I heard from residents of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, the United Kingdom, and South Africa who explained their experiences, a number of interested parties who overwhelmed me with links to surveys and studies, and a “Community TA” who intervened to make sure everyone knew that I was wrong and that fracking was too environmentally dangerous to advocate.

But in other ways, I won’t miss it. Typing out questions late at night to students rather than asking them in class or over lunch wasn’t fun, and corresponding with strangers I’ve never met whose personalities I can’t discern was hard. The conversation took on the tone of students pretending to be experts rivaling each other in the number of sources they could amass; I couldn’t read and evaluate every study that got cited in that fracking discussion, nor could I always tell who really knew something about the subject and who was just linking anything that came up in a Google search. On the other hand, nor will I miss the frustration of starting a forum post on a topic I wanted to discuss, only to find few students interested in the same question. But my main regret is the stymied interaction between professor and student. I wish I could knock on Professor Tomkin’s door.

(This is part 4 in Rachelle De Jong’s series on taking a MOOC. You can find Part 3 here, Part 2 here, and Part 1 here.)


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