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Communications of the ACM


Will Massive Open Online Courses Change How We Teach?

Massive Open Online Course photo

Credit: University of Illinois Springfield

Sharing recent experiences with the massive open artificial intelligence course developed and conducted by Stanford faculty Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig.


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Pavel Lepin

With all due respect to the author, and noting that the text offers a reasonably favourable opinion on the MOOC issue, I have to say that this is yet another in the long series of articles taking an extremely narrow, US-centric, academia-blinders-on view of the matter.

Thousands, potentially millions of students from around the world now all have access to educational materials of extremely high quality compared to local standards. Comparing Coursera, Udacity or EDx experience to a Standford classroom experience might be a fine intellectual exercise and all, in an ivory tower, head-in-the-clouds kind of way. But for a huge fraction of online students Stanford classroom is not an option, and will never be. Financially, geographically, and in terms of time commitment needed to obtain a college degree.

And if you compare Prof. Thrun lectures (or most of the classes offered by Coursera, which seems to be extremely good at finding passionate, gifted and all-around awesome teachers) to your average CS class in North Elbonistan's top school... Well, let me tell you - and I'm speaking from personal experience - that the latter is not even within a shouting distance.

Surely, there are good teachers everywhere. And just as surely, one can study a subject productively under almost any circumstances, as long as one has a decent textbook available and sufficient motivation to learn. But I've yet to see an MSc CS from my country who would known what a fold is, and I interviewed several dozen of them in the last few years. The word 'catamorphism' makes them outright catatonic, I kid you not. Many of those had LISP on their resumes.

This might be in part due to the devolution of the higher education system into a machine for rubber-stamping the raw material for the ever-hungry IT job market. But I submit that simple deficit of quality educational substrate is a major factor too. A good friend of mine (a young but brilliant practicing software engineer, I should mention) has a long-standing interest in DSP. But he couldn't find a class in that at his school back when he was getting his BSc. He studied on his own, and keeps studying to this day. But let me tell you that he jumped with joy when I told him Coursera is planning to offer a DSP class from EPFL this winter.

The MOOC trinity may or may not compete with Stanford et al. But that's completely beyond the point for most of their students. Open your mind a little already. The world doesn't end at the walls of your campus, and MOOCs are about the world, not about the lucky few who got on the inside of those walls.

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