My Year of MOOCs (Slate)

(NB: Some interesting observations in this article; cf. as well the reference both to the APA and Greg Nagy’s HeroesX course.)

By Jonathan Haber

 Lessons learned from earning the equivalent of a B.A. in 12 months, online.


I walked into the evening cocktail hour at the recent American Philosophical Association (APA) Eastern Division Meeting even more self-conscious than the job-hunting graduate students nervously prowling the halls. For they at least had Ph.D.s, while my philosophical training consisted of just one year of intense study—study conducted entirely online, facilitated by massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other forms of free learning.

I was attending APA as the self-assigned “final exam” for my Degree of Freedom One Year BA project, an experiment designed to determine whether it was possible to learn the equivalent of a four-year liberal arts bachelor’s program in just 12 months using the online classes that have been in the news so much over the last two years.

In fact, it was those very news stories that inspired my project. For in 2012, declared the “Year of the MOOC” by the New York Times, enthusiasm for massive open courses was running high. MOOC boosters (from Thomas Friedman to Udacity Founder Sebastian Thrun) were talking about an academy about to be disrupted to its foundations. And elected officials in California and Florida answered by introducing legislation that would give college credit to students taking them.

By the end of my “sophomore year,” in June of 2013, however, a MOOC backlash had set in, with educators questioning the value of a teaching method where less than one in 10 of those who enroll complete a course. Legislation that proposed granting credit for MOOCs was shelved or watered down amid complaints that MOOCs (many offered by venture-backed companies) might decimate the educational landscape in order to turn a profit for investors.

These critics had something in common with earlier enthusiasts: little to no experience taking actual MOOC classes. That was why the voice I wanted to add to the conversation was that of a student—one who had completed the number of courses required to meet the distribution and degree requirements of a traditional liberal arts B.A. program.


MOOCs are often criticized for just transferring a “sage on stage” pedagogy from the lectern to the computer screen, scaling up the worst aspects of oversized lecture classes. But as my year of MOOCs went on, I saw a new visual language developing, as single talking heads were supplemented (or replaced entirely) with conversations among colleagues (the visual style of one of my favorite courses: HarvardX’s Ancient Greek Hero), interviews with experts, on-location shots, and even on-screen performances. Such creativity helped to make lectures one of the most engaging and, ironically, intimate components of massive online courses, while also raising the bar for all other forms of online learning (most of it far duller than your average MOOC).


That said, I will always remember how a question I posted in the Greek Hero forum regarding the portrayal of Achilles in Troilus and Cressida was answered by a fellow student who knew exactly which classical sources Shakespeare had at hand when he wrote that work. So while online classes do not facilitate the back-and-forth of an undergraduate bull session, they do offer the chance to interact with other students with a wide variety of life and academic experience, some of it quite useful.


No doubt any of the Ph.D.s in the building could have chewed me up and spit me out had I overreached, just as easily as they could drink me under the table at cocktail hour. But my One Year BA was not meant to turn me into their peer. Rather, it was meant to create the type of transformative educational experience one receives at the undergraduate level, one that leaves you a different person at the end of it than you were when you started. With that in mind, is it outlandish to consider me the equivalent of a graduating senior with a B.A. in philosophy?

As Socrates, one of my guides over the last year, put it, “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” And in a world where traditional education is costing ever more, and seems often to seek to fill rather than kindle, the free-learning bounty growing and improving online might yet prove a valuable resource to turn young people into passionate independent learners.

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