MOOC’s vs Classroom

This week on the interweb we’ve seen debate at top universities and national newspapers about the future and success of MOOC’s for learning; personally we’ve also had a difficult week MOOC’ing in basecamp Chiang Mai and want to weigh in on the argument with our thoughts.

Remember the plan we posted last week and are trying to follow? Well, we are struggling to stick to the rigid timetable (currently on track to complete term 1 in 3 months).

Based on our reflections, these are the additional challenges of doing a MOOC compared to classroom based learning:

MOOC’s Posthumous

Compilers, Updates and Access: When completing old programming courses that still reside on the web, you are almost always going to have problems setting up your development environment, things will not work. If the course is old, this will be further exacerbated by software not being backwards compatible or supported. To make things worse, of course, there are no office hours where you can get troubleshooting support. Forums normally aim to bridge this gap in platforms such as and but this is no longer available once the course has ended. We spent three days on and off this week, struggling with c++ compilers and libraries for CS106B, and still might not have it solved. This reached a pinnacle on Thursday, when only as we were leaving to set off for Salsa did we realise it was actually a Friday and we had spent a further 24 hrs on compiling problems.

You know that Sunday when the clocks go back and you suddenly get this sinking feeling you lost an hour because you weren’t expecting it… that, just 24 hours instead !

Conclusion: -Old programming courses involve greater set-up times, you almost always underestimate these.

Coding and Timelines

MOOC’s often have timelines and these can hold you accountable to progress; however coding often does not lend itself to timelines especially as you are learning. The computer’s inability to read your mind means that every bug introduced through syntax or lack of understanding can take you hours to figure out. This week we started homework 1 of the Harvard Visualisation course on Monday; after an entire day we had finished part 2 of 4. However, with the elation this brought, we assumed the worst was over and our understanding was now concrete; we would therefore finish the remainder before lunch the next day! It was on Wednesday evening we finally finished, having failed to climb and dance salsa the last two evenings as a result. This really got us thinking, is what we are doing valuable or are we fooling ourselves (an enlightening TED talk where people perceive more value purely when things are difficult)We both still have our doubts sometimes: but the reality might be coding is difficult and we learn through the painful, time consuming process of struggling and often failing. You cannot read yourself to accomplishment, you must hone your skills through application and this takes time. We realised this week, without the time and flexibility we have at the moment we may well have given up!

Conclusion: -Learning to code involves time consuming frustration and a programming MOOC is just not something you can easily do between dinner and the 9 0’clock news!


The trials of this week bring me to my third point; in the face of difficulty where can we find the strength and support to plow on. I imagine either Sabine or I attempting the same courses on our own would struggle more, this is a somewhat obvious weakness of independent learning but it manifests itself in many ways. For programming, two minds are often better than one; the bugs one person misses another might not, while the very action of explaining and justifying your logic to someone else can be the catalyst for fixing code or improving it. But more importantly working together unlocks a human benefit of shared success; someone who is there to share your accomplishment and breakthroughs and hi-5 you when your C++ finally compiles!!

Conclusion: -Technical and psychological support do play a part and in that way, MOOCs are tough when not surrounded by people who care and can lend a hand.

Going banana’s at Programming !!


So given the week we have had, we’re going to weigh in on some aspects of MOOC’s debate:

1. High Dropout Rates

“We don’t want tourists,” – alluding to the high dropout rates among MOOCs. “Our goal is to be very credible to employers.” Jana Kierstead, executive director of HBX.

MOOC’s are hard as hopefully we have begun to convey. If the topics are new to you, it will be a time consuming undertaking and not easily done alongside other commitments. However I don’t think the fact that many people sign up to a course and don’t engage with all the resources invalidates taking the course in the first place. Sabine signed up to a number of courses online prior to undertaking this project, to make sure she would have access to the resources once the course terminated. We were going to complete these at our own pace in our own timeline; now what that means, is that Sabine contributes to statistics of students who sign up to courses and do not engage with any materials whatsoever! (for example our current Natural Language Processing course from Columbia University finished about a year ago). This data is misleading because we never intended to do this course at that time. There are surely a number of other reasons people sign up for a courses and just don’t interact with the materials, within the timeline given.

2. Cost and R.O.I. of MOOC’s

“The goal of education is to provide students with the skills they need to achieve their own life goals, not to retain individuals in a classroom” 

The CS106A lectures we completed were recorded in 2008. This is now 6 years ago and yet provided us both the opportunity to attend the same material as an undergraduate computer scientist from Stanford! I am so grateful for this. So yes, although there is an upfront cost to setting up these courses online, I think this initial investment shouldn’t immediately be used as a reason to discontinue funding new courses, considering the longevity of the impact that such a course can have. I imagine many of the R.O.I. models discount this long-tail of people continuing to benefit. To use the CS106A example again, although some of material is a little outdated, I particularly like when Mehran asks if anyone is signed up to a social media site and lists facebook as an afterthought, funny to think that twitter didn’t even feature in the list then!! But beyond that, the course was excellent and fully applicable! As a result of it, Sabine got accepted into a junior java developer role – definitely something she owes Mehran a coffee for!


We want to give our greatest thanks and admiration to those with the passion to keep MOOC’s alive!


Have you completed any MOOCs? What are your thoughts about them ?


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