Start it up: MOOCs and Higher Education

Over the summer, I took the Coursera Startup Engineering course. I have some interest in startups, and wanted to get some exposure to all the web tech that has grown popular in the last few years.

Overall I was pretty disappointed.

For the most part, the class was basically a very basic intro on using some popular “cloud computing” technologies: Amazon Web Services, node.js, heroku, github, etc. The final project was very simple, essentially a press release with a donation button attached. There was very little backend coding or logic.

And aside from a brief overview of the startup atmosphere, and maybe some napkin-calculation on revenue potential, there was very little business information communicated.

If I did have a legit idea, how would I meet up with venture capitalists? How would I manage capital? What are some strategies to survive the lean years? Legal requirements? Tax stuff? should I focus on perfecting the tech or getting to market with something messy? What’s a good makeup of the team (coders, graphic designers, PR, business, sales?) None of this was addressed.

Startup

From a tech perspective, the course was a nice excuse to get my feet wet with some new technologies. From my limited perspective, the stuff isn’t really anywhere as robust or usable as the tried and true technologies (php + mysql + apache, running your own servers, java / .net).

But beyond the whole startup / silicon valley hype, the entire concept of MOOCs felt weak. This was supposed to be a gold star of Coursera, one of the premiere courses offered, and probably one of the most popular. What we basically got was some 1-day tutorials on setting up AWS, downloading git repositories, configuring and running a node.js webserver. The lectures consisted of the prof reading through the tutorial slides, hardly better than a dozen posts on youtube. There were 7 homework assignments, most of which could be answered by reading through the homework. The most logically challenging programming assignment was implementing a recursive Fibonacci function.

Even classes I skipped or slept through in college offered me more than this.

The ironic thing about the idea behind MOOCs is that they drastically change the format of higher education for the better. But unfortunately, the format they’ve taken so far is to simply record boring lectures of famous profs, and tack on some multiple choice questions at the end of the video.

I can see how distributed tech classes could possibly work – something like Khan Academy, where programming assignments work dynamically in the browser, and you get feedback in small increments to verify you are mastering the brain-intensive techniques and concepts in real-time, instead of waiting for weeks to pass/flunk a test.

But something that is more creative thinking (humanities classes, more senior-level design and programming classes) fall short in the lecture + multiple choice model. Real colleges don’t work this way. The real learning happens in a round table discussion or a project + presentation model.

The problem is those don’t scale easily.

You probably could have some sort of class format, say for a discussion of English literature, where you read the book, then get broken into assigned groups to discuss via web chat. But how can you charge for something that’s hardly more than a volunteer book club? Discussion classes work in real meat-space universities because a professor (or TA) can sit in the discussion, moderate, and give participation points. And at the end, slog through a dozen 10 page papers. That can’t scale.

The project model could work a little bit better. This is sort of what the startup MOOC attempted, even if their framework and automated testing code was a bit too rudimentary. Using some form of automated testing + peer review to verify the project meets the basic requirements, then add in an additional voting/ranking system for extra credit.

The MOOC debate brings into focus the entire question of higher education, however. Once people can read, write, perform basic arithmetic, what else do they need? Is higher ed only for training the professional elite (doctors, lawyers, engineers, biz execs?) Or is there something implicitly good in learning? Learning for learning’s sake.

And if so, what role, or benefit do MOOCs provide?

When I think about my own experience with learning, most of the hard work was done on my own time, in my own head. Whether that was reading a book, or mastering a new programming paradigm. But classes provided the framework of instruction and curiosity. I used the startup MOOC as a springboard, and an excuse, to evaluate AWS, node.js, git, heroku. The classes presented the syntax in a nicely digestible format, but the hard thinking and brainwork had to be done on my own end, in my own experiments. The homework didn’t catalyze that, I had to take an extra step, set my own goal for what I wanted to get out of it.

So I’m highly skeptical if (the current crop of) MOOCs will ever take off and make any progress in unseating classic meatspace university education. The technical challenges (low-fi videos + message boards + dumbed down assignments) and be improved upon, but I just don’t see how the quality aspects of university learning environment can be scaled digitally.

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