My Year Away. And Back.

The Joys of Getting Back into Academic Life after a Year-Long Sabbatical.


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For Something Fun in the New Year, Take a MOOC

We professors tend to yap our fool heads off about any number of things.  Everyone’s an expert!  In journalism education circles, this seems particularly true when it comes to technology.

In higher education, there is a lot of buzz about the pros and cons of massively open online courses.  Everyone seems to have an opinion—even if they have absolutely no idea how MOOCs work.  (I just read an article published in an alumni magazine, for example, that argued a MOOC is bad because it isn’t as good as a 16-student seminar.)  So, as I’ve been planning My Year Away, I decided I will need to experience a MOOC for myself.  But, turns out that I got too curious and didn’t want to wait until my sabbatical began.

I’m pleased to report that I just completed my first MOOC (successfully, no less!), a statistics class from Professor Andy Conway at Princeton University.  My analysis? I loved it!  It was challenging, fun, and a lot of work (I typically put in 10 hours/week on it.)

But here’s what surprised me most of all.  It felt like a real class.  Even though 100,000 students from around the world were my classmates (I have no idea how many dropped it, but according to the research, probably about 95,000), it felt like a real class.  I stressed out over the assignments, I had to ask fellow students for help, I got behind at times.  And perhaps what surprised me most of all was how intimate the whole experience felt.

I walked away from the class with a completely different attitude about distributed education models.  I was skeptical—and now I’m intrigued.

Recently, a number of people have written about the disappointing realization that over 80% of the people who sign up for MOOCs already have a college degree.  Apparently, many people have decided that MOOCs should be for the financially disadvantaged only—as a way to get a college education that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to achieve. (I’m not sure where Bill Gates falls into this since he is a college drop out, but clearly brilliant; Gates says that he has taken several MOOCs.)  Some argue that because most MOOC students have a college degree already, MOOCs are a bust.

In my statistics class (if the comments on the forum were representative) then this class, too, was filled with college graduates—many with multiple graduate degrees.  But, I don’t think this makes the grand MOOC experiment a failure.  What this class has done for me (besides helping me brush up on my statistics) includes giving me:

1.     A greater appreciation for distributed education models.  I used to think face-to-face was always the best way to share knowledge.  Now I’m thinking that variety provides an additional layer of acquiring knowledge.  I’m also looking outward from my campus more.  I’m thinking about ways we can make more of our classes available to more students in South Carolina (and maybe outside the state, too).

2.     Improved knowledge, which I have to believe, will make me a better teacher and scholar.  Ultimately, that should also benefit  my students.  I know more now than I did 12 weeks ago.  And I realize that I can do more to increase my knowledge–within in my own field, but also outside my typical scholarly boundaries.

3.     Compassion for those who struggle with minimal technical access.  My forum stats colleagues inspired me as I read about some of their struggles—and determination to succeed even though they lived in locations with sporadic internet connections and only had access to computers that were generations older than mine.

I love the idea that MOOCs could help students earn an undergraduate degree.  But until a demand grows for more MOOC courses like English 101, Algebra, Introductory to Rhetoric, etc. rather than the seriously cool courses that are currently available, it’s not going to happen.   But, to me, that doesn’t mean that the MOOC experiment is a colossal failure.

Sure, we have a long way to go before MOOCs can solve any kind of world-wide education gap between high-resourced people and those with minimal resources.   But rather than pooh-pooh the whole shebang, why not get into the middle of it and see what all the scuttlebutt is about.

Take a class.  It’s stressful, but a blast.  I’m already signed up for another statistics class that starts in February, this time from a professor at Duke.  I can already tell that my brain is gearing up for a successful Year Away.  I have no idea how many students have signed up for the class that starts in February (about 160 days before My Year Away starts), but I’m sure there is room for one more.  Anybody want to join me?