What I saw in the 100,000 student classroom

What I saw in the 100,000 student classroom

“People who want to disrupt higher education don’t care one whit about the quality of higher education”. – Jonathon Rees


Jonathan Rees is not alone in saying such a thing. There have been many “concerned professors” who think MOOCs are baloney.(I have heard several people who have neither taken an online course nor the trouble to find out more about them express opinions on the matter in the past year and a half.) After having taken three online courses, I feel that I am adequately qualified to express my opinion on Massively open online courses (MOOCs).


I signed up for MOOCs when I was in my final year of college (last year). Udacity and Coursera – two excellent Silicon Valley start ups trying to bring higher education to the masses had just started offering courses in computer science at that time and the classes were taught by gurus- people outstanding in their fields from whom I had never dreamed of learning. For instance, Peter Norvig – director of research at Google was offering a course in Design of computer programs. Another eminent professor- David Evans was offering a course called Introduction to computer science. And Steve Huffman of reddit and hipmunk was teaching creation of web applications using Google App Engine.


I used to look forward to the lectures each evening after returning from my classes. I didn’t care much about the homework. I didn’t care about the kind of grade I would end up getting if I did not submit my answers on time. The fact that kept me going was the engaging experience they provided – a rare and precious window into the mind of a master programmer approaching a problem. I suspect that its the same kind of thing that engaged several of my classmates who also signed up for the class. We were learning something because we wanted to. Not because it was in the university’s curriculum.


Moreover, the courses were really interactive: The lecture video pauses and has a field where you can fill in the answer when the teacher asks you a question and there are “office hours” segments in which professors answer students’ questions. The courses designed by Udacity and Coursera are excellent and I would like to invite the detractors who say, “Yeah. Online education is great! but it doesn’t have the same quality as something taught in a traditional classroom” to take professor Peter Norvig’s class on Artificial Intelligence (The videos are still available online).


In fact, Peter Norvig himself gave an excellent Ted Talk on why he offered the course online. I frankly admit that online education may never equal the education you can obtain at a premier university like Stanford or UCB, or Harvard. But that is not its intention. The intention, which many people mistakenly assume to be “to replace traditional universities” or “to disrupt higher education” is completely ridiculous and false. Maybe that will happen in future or maybe it won’t. But the real intention is to spread knowledge and learning in the world for those eager to learn -knowledge that they couldn’t have had access to otherwise.


In fact, I have seen students as old as fifty and as young as thirteen signing up for classes. Its long been true that whenever a mass medium for communication arises or a new medium of communication is invented, there will always be those who insist on resisting it – venerable MIT professor Gerald Jay Sussman put this beautifully when he said, “I suspect that when writing was invented, a lot of people were very angry because they had spent years memorizing stuff like psalms and stories in the Bible or something similar and were suddenly no longer important.” It is happening now with online education.


The internet is a powerful medium. And its being used in innovative ways. We must take steps to ensure it grows and not try to resist its influence on our lives but rather embrace it and gain something useful from it. A lot of people in the forums (yes, there are forums where students and teachers talk to each other) express nothing but gratitude at the knowledge they are being provided- free of cost. And I have felt that gratitude too. Students have acknowledged that they are getting something unattainable till now- knowledge traditionally kept behind closed doors and entrance tests which demanded expensive fees.


Online courses may not replace the traditional universities in the next five years, or in the next decade or in the next fifty years even. But if it can help teach thousands of people [while demanding almost no resources] who have had no formal education or who just wanted to learn more, or those who could not afford college education and make them better educated, more informed and knowledgeable, is that not enough? A world with a million more better-educated citizens would certainly be a much better place.


Hrishikesh S  is a software engineer, writer and an advocate of open source software. When he is not reading or writing code, he spends his time blogging about tech, reading novels and watching Phineas and Ferb cartoons on tv.

Hrishikesh S


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