Of MOOCs and Learning

Decades ago, dreamers imagined a world where the resources and tools for learning anything could be used by anyone.  Where colleges, universities, and even ordinary people could share information and ideas, collaborate and learn.  With the invention of the World Wide Web in 1989, many people thought that that world was close at hand, but it’s taken twenty-four years and countless hours of work to bring it to fruition.

Earlier this spring, I heard about a new site called edX.  One of the new generation of education startups– called MOOCs— it offers online courses from a number of high-profile schools, including MIT, Harvard, University of California- Berkeley, Rice University, and the University of Texas.  One course in particular that caught my eye was called edX 7.00x: Introduction to Biology- The Secret of Life, and was taught by Professor Eric Lander, one of the authors on the Human Genome Project.  I signed up, and prepared to watch some recorded lectures from his classroom.

I soon discovered that the quality of the lectures was far above my expectations.  Where I had been expecting poorly-lit, low-quality video, there was professionally-recorded video with accompanying resources, images, text excerpts, problem sets, discussion boards– basically an entire college course.  edX published new lectures weekly, with weekly or bi-weekly graded tests.  Scoring higher than a 60% on the entire class would gain you a certificate of accomplishment; those scoring below 60% by the end of the course could choose to instead audit the course.

For the past few months, I have wandered through biology with a fantastic guide.  Professor Lander is clearly a man who loves his work, and his boundless enthusiasm has made even the dullest parts of biology seem bright and interesting.  The discussion boards have been teeming with helpful classmates, brimming with insights.  The problem sets and tests have challenged without being impossibly difficult.

And now, it’s over.

Today was the final day.  I watched the farewell message from Professor Lander, completed the survey for the course, and completed the final exam.  I’ll miss the weekly lectures, I’ll miss learning something new about biology every week, and I’ll miss interacting with my classmates.

So, to Professor Lander and the entire team at MIT and edX, if you happen to read this, thank you.  Thank you for bringing the joy of learning not only to me, but to the 40,000 other people who signed up as well.  Today, anyone with an Internet connection and a desire to learn can go online and join a high-quality class in almost anything that they’re interested in, and the edX team, along with their partners, are in large part responsible for this distribution of knowledge.

Several decades ago, science fiction spoke of a future where knowledge could be shared and traded among everyone.  Writers dreamed of a world where anyone could learn anything– a future society where information could be truly free.

The future is here.