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Student Voices

Dear MOOCs: “I Do.”

Opinion piece by Lura Sanborn on what she liked and learned about online education.

Lura Sanborn

Below is a three-part series on Flourishing with Online Education by Lura Sanborn. Lura is a research librarian for a prep school in central NH, where she teaches research skills & sources, selects the library’s digital content and creates research guides. In her free time she advocates for coconut-based ice-cream flavors at her husband’s sweet shop and dreams of a future filled with robots. See Part 1 of this series, Addressing Three MOOC Misgivings.

While I haven’t given my life over to digital education, I feel almost ready to.  Dear MOOCs: “I Do.”  Why?  Geographical convenience, awesomeness of both content and structure, ability to self-schedule lectures, knowledge from the source, and purity of learning.

Dear MOOCs: “I Do.”  Why?  Geographical convenience, awesomeness of both content and structure, ability to self-schedule lectures, knowledge from the source, and purity of learning. 

Five MOOCs and a little post-grad coursework have me convinced.  At its most obvious, as Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera has said, digital education allows online learners  to “structure their learning around their lives” as opposed to “structuring their lives around their learning.”  Absolutely.  The genre’s defining video lecture is available when I feel sharp and able to digest new content, unlike say, the deadly 6-9 p.m. slot, Tuesdays and Thursdays, during my last in-person degree program.

A name-brand stickered on a MOOC doesn’t guarantee quality, but yes, these schools delivered. 

And oh the content!  The post-grad class was superior in both content and structure to any taken while completing my analog-based Master’s ten years ago.  While this might have been a one-off occurrence, my experience with MOOCs makes me think it is not.  I’ve eagerly taken a handful of Moocs created by influential schools, including Berkeley, Harvard, UC San Diego, and UNC Chapel Hill.  A name-brand stickered on a MOOC doesn’t guarantee quality, but yes, these schools delivered.  Superior, engaging content, in some cases from the very researchers defining and leading a particular field.  How better to study a field than to be nuzzled up, close to the source?  While I was perfectly happy with it at the time, most of my undergrad coursework should be embarrassed in comparison.

Video lectures brought unanticipated advantages 

I’ve been delighted to find that the video lecture brought unanticipated advantages.  Although I generally enjoy education, I find I look forward to attending virtual class even more as I can delve in on my own terms (with the added bonus of no lectures lost due to sick days, snow days or no-motivation days).  During my in-person degree programs, there was a feeling in certain lectures of “just get through this” and magically thinking towards the lecturer “hurry up, hurry up!”  That doesn’t seem to happen in my self-selected, digital coursework.  I am able to approach and engage with my online education in a more mindful and grateful way.

In addition to the constant readiness of the material for me, the content, wonderfully, comes in a way that I can rewind/revisit, and this has proven helpful over and over. I somtimes review material that was particularly mind-blowing, as a reminder of important points in preparation for a paper/project/quiz, or when thinking of contributing to a discussion board.  Many MOOC platforms offer a transcript of every video lecture, sometimes in multiple languages.

A big benefit I wasn’t expecting involves class participation 

A big benefit I wasn’t expecting involves class participation. As someone who tends to be on the quiet side, particularly in group settings, I especially appreciate the online discussion boards.  These allow me the opportunity to contemplate discussion questions, and respond only after thoughtfully linking my thoughts to earlier readings, lectures and the contributions from my classmates. I believe I express myself better in writing then I do in person. In my undergrad days I had more than one professor ask me why I didn’t participate more in the classroom.  In a matter of weeks, in the online post-grad class, my professor thanked me for my contributions to the discussion board and pointed to them as being responsible for moving and shaping earlier discussion threads.  Online, I can be a full participant at the digital Harkness Table, while in the physical classroom I was often quiet and felt the need for more time to reflect and construct a thoughtful response.

I feel I should mention my experience with the discussion board in The Science of Happiness (I have a goal of pursuing a PhD in Psychology some day) in which 100,000+ students enrolled.  Those discussion threads were simply overwhelming. I opened weekly threads, skimmed the first five to six posts and then ran away to the next lecture or reading.  However, I understand new tools are being designed (perhaps are already here?) for online students to chat with each other in small groups.  It is exciting to look forward to the technology that will result in the same meaningful discussions I enjoyed in my professional class of twenty students, within a larger MOOC.

Digital education allows online learners  to “structure their learning around their lives” as opposed to “structuring their lives around their learning.” 

My other favorite advantage of the digital classroom, is, because the classroom is flipped, and the professor and TAs are making content-based videos, this cleanly does away with the dreaded ‘student-led course’ model. Frustratingly, I felt that more than one of my undergraduate classes was not much more than a waste of time due to the fact that over 50% of the classes used this model.  Most weeks, the professor would choose a student to lead and direct the class, and the next hour and a half would be undergraduate interpretations of the reading and/or a re-iteration of amateur library-based research.  I found this incredibly frustrating; not that I minded hearing what my fellow students thought, but to have the bulk of the course be nothing but this made me feel ripped off.  I always thought I was paying for the particular expertise of the professor, not to hear my fellow students chatter about the reading they (may) have done.  The digital education model is based on leveraging the high-quality content of experts, and in my eyes, this is of very high value.

Do MOOCs allow for increased democracy in class? In the Science of Happiness class, they invited students to submit questions, in advance of live video sessions with professors and field-expert guests.  We could submit questions and vote up/down on the questions submitted, thus democratically selecting those questions to be asked of the experts.  I liked knowing that our student community had a shared voice and that the loudest, most extroverted ones could not hold the floor hostage and direct a high percentage of the questions.  With a classroom of virtual students, professors (and fellow students) could not yield to even unintentional or subconscious bias, and favoring some students over others.

Gone, in the digital classroom, are our physical overlays that influence perceptions of intelligence and value.  

I spoke recently with a colleague that participated in a hybrid classroom a decade ago, and she shared a particularly striking experience.  One student came across brilliantly, making insightful, useful contributions in the online environment.  My colleague was shocked, some semesters later, when meeting this clever student in person, to discover that she had a shrill, almost unbearable voice–to the point of distraction.  Gone, in the digital classroom, are our physical overlays that influence perceptions of intelligence and value. Working together without submitting to our conscious and unconscious biases, allows the teaching and learning experience to become about ideas and execution of work. Thus, digital education provides a purity of learning surpassing that found in the traditional classroom experience.  I am hopeful this means movement towards a truer educational meritocracy, based on achievements and skill, while simultaneously moving away from the implicit biases of “old-boy networks”. Taken together, I believe this means more doors open for more people, better access to quality educational content, and greater transparency on the part of educational providers. For me personally? I’m dreaming of the educational platforms advancing enough to allow me to pursue that psychology PhD I’ve had such a craving for, no-holds-barred.


Koller, D. (2015, January 5). The Hype is Dead, but MOOCs Are Marching On (Interview by D. Huesman) [Transcript]. Retrieved January 7, 2015, from Knowledge@Wharton website: http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/moocs-making-progress-hype-died/


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