Lifetime Learning: Discovering MOOCs


I like learning. I like watching documentaries, going to museums, binging on PBS series, nerding out on obscure topics — do not get me started on the cavalier poets of the 17th century. Yeah, I like learning.

I’ve always lived here on the West Coast, grew up in a small Canadian town, never considered travelling for a prestigious education. And the reality is, could never have afforded it if I wanted to. This meant that an Ivy League education was out of the cards for me, on many levels.

Then I heard about something called a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course).

In 2012, I found out that some of the Ivy League universities had joined forces to offer anyone from anywhere a chance to take any number of their university level courses. Harvard was handing out its knowledge to anyone who wanted it. Seemed too good to be true.

So I opened up my browser and entered the impossibly simple website address: www.edx.org.

It wasn’t too good to be true.

Edx was offering MOOCs in almost every subject imaginable; from understanding Homer’s Illiad to the History of Justice to Data Analysis for Life Sciences. With a simple click of the button, I was watching a 10-minute video by a Harvard professor about a subject he had spent his career understanding.

I felt like I had won the lottery. And I acted like I had, too.

I jammed my schedule with free courses. I was enrolled in a science, law, physics and poetry class. When I wasn’t at work, I was spending upwards of five hours after work on EDx learning from the greatest minds in the country. I loved it. I reveled in the information overload, but none of the information was sticking. I was failing each class.

Oh, I didn’t tell you that part.

Yes, it’s a class. A MOOC is a class you do on your laptop, tablet, mobile phone, or desktop — whatever your device of choice is. While most classes are live — meaning that a new lesson is posted each week with a deadline for completion — some MOOCs are archived, allowing you to do them on your own time. In the case of the live MOOCs, you’re learning along with all the other students at the same time around the world.

Or not learning, as was my case. But only I knew about my humiliating losses because enrollment doesn’t require anyone’s approval or a checking of credentials.

Taking the class is easy. You watch a video, you answer the quiz — mainly so they can confirm that you’re listening — you have the option of reading supplemental books and you engage with your fellow students in the online discussions. If, at the end of the course, you pay attention enough to get a passing grade, you earn a certificate.

After force-feeding myself too much free knowledge, I took a break. I loved what I was learning, but I wasn’t passing the quizzes and the discussions seemed too esoteric to get engaged with. I figured maybe I just wasn’t smart enough for these Ivy League schools after all.

I unenrolled, shut down my profile and never opened the site up again for a year.

Then one day, an email caught my eye. It was for a MOOC called “American Capitalism – A History.” I clicked on the link.

By now, Edx had grown beyond Ivy League schools to offer courses from almost every university in the world. They had also expanded past just free courses, and now offered verified certificates for courses with costs ranging from $45 to $1,250 — and just as I started to reconsider diving back in — they started offering degrees. All of which are recognized by brick and mortar admissions and employers today.

It appeared that in three short years, Edx had begun a movement.

Edx was created to provide students around the world with an avenue into learning. They’re a non-profit and offer courses from 85 prestigious universities around the world to attract students of any education level a chance to study something they never would have considered. Their three most popular courses are Harvard’s Introduction to Computer Science boasting more than 800,000 worldwide students, U.C. Berkeley’s Science of Happiness that has put a smiley face on 297,000 worldwide students and MIT’s Intro to Computational Thinking and Data Science for 221,000 students. At last count, EDx had over 17 million course enrollments, with 1.7 million students learning in self-paced courses.

Though the median age of students is 29, they have students as young as seven and as experienced as 96. Thirty percent of their students are in the U.S. and the majority of those students are continuing learners.

The option to take all of these courses for free remains, and you still get a certificate if you pass.

Today, EDx is not the only organizationoffering MOOCs, you’ll find them also at www.coursera.org, www.apple.com/education/ipad/itunes-u and an amalgamated roster at www.mooc-list.com.

So, though I failed miserably at my attempts at an Ivy League education, it seemed obvious I wasn’t the only one willing to try.

With hesitation, and a determination to take one course at a time, I enrolled in “American Capitalism – A History” a course offered from Cornell. I stayed rapt through the whole thing, devoured the lessons and finally passed.

My prestigious university level education wasn’t dead yet.

Now, I have three EDx certificates, one from the Cornell class, one from Smithsonian University, and an art history certificate from the University of Madrid. By the end of the year, I’ll have a certificate in the “Science of Art Restoration” from Trinity (just completed), and by January, a certificate in Civil War history from Columbia. Finally, also in January, I’ll have a certificate in a class called “American Government” taught by professor Thomas Patterson from Harvard.

Yes, I finally passed a Harvard MOOC. Phew.

How do I know I’ll earn these certificates? The course page offers a chart of my progress and I am only a few lessons away from finishing the last two MOOCs. My progress chart shows that I’ve already made a passing grade.

It remains to be seen if and how this education impacts my life, my work, my world, but I know one thing for sure. I like learning, and finding a way to do that has renewed my interest in keeping it a lifetime pursuit.

 

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