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Making The Most Of MOOCs: The Ins And Outs Of E-Learning


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

Don't email the professor, never friend the teacher on Facebook, those are just some of the rules A.J. Jacobs was surprised to learn when he joined millions of other students worldwide who've registered for massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Top universities like Harvard and MIT now offer virtual classes free of charge to thousands of potential students across the globe. Writer A.J. Jacobs missed his college days so decided to enroll in 11 MOOCs with subjects ranging from philosophy to genetics to cosmology. He chronicled his experience in The New York Times, and we'll talk with him in just a moment.

If you've enrolled in a MOOC, what surprised you? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address: Or you can join the conversation at our website. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION. A.J. Jacobs joins us now. We have a link for the piece he wrote for The New York Times at our website, A.J. is in our New York bureau. Welcome to you.

A.J. JACOBS: Thank you, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: OK. First, very ambitious of you to take on 11 courses. I don't remember any undergrads doing that.


JACOBS: Well, I did drop out of most of them, so...


LUDDEN: Yeah. All but two in the end.

JACOBS: Exactly.

LUDDEN: So you were sampling a bit?

JACOBS: Yes. I did a little dabbling, but there's no penalty for dabbling. So I figured why not?

LUDDEN: Which is part of the problem, I guess? What...

JACOBS: Right.

LUDDEN: What was your goal here?

JACOBS: My goal was, you know, I love learning. I sometimes wish I was still in college. But I also love sitting on my couch, so I thought this was a perfect experiment...


JACOBS: ...where I live to see the state of MOOCs today.

LUDDEN: OK. And you start off your article talking about the - so much for the Socratic method. You have this high profile, in some cases, teacher, but the professor you write is only slightly more accessible than the pope or Thomas Pynchon.

JACOBS: Right. And this is one of the big challenges of MOOCs. I mean, for me, there were many good parts to MOOCs and many challenges. I gave it an overall grade of a B, a solid B. But one of the big challenges is that you've got tens of thousands of students all over the globe, and you only have one top professor. So it's going to be difficult to sit down and have a conversation with him or her.

LUDDEN: And there seriously were rules, like don't friend them on Facebook and don't email them?

JACOBS: Oh, yeah. That was stated and, you know, we took it seriously. We left them alone.

LUDDEN: So what did that feel like then? What - how did you experience that?

JACOBS: Well, there were several parts to the MOOC experience. So first are the videotape lectures, which are awesome because you can watch them totally at your convenience. You can watch them when - I watched them on my treadmill, eating lunch. I watch them in double speed when my cosmology professor talk a little slowly. So - and you can watch them anywhere, you know, Senegal or South Dakota. But then there are also quizzes and essays that you can take that - and do projects. And then there's also the interaction with the other students, and you can do that on discussion boards or Google, a chat or Twitter. And then there is a little bit of interaction with the professor and the teaching assistants. It all depends on the professor, how available they are. I really tried to have an interaction with the professor. I entered a lottery to have an exclusive Google hangout with my genetics professor.

LUDDEN: The class had a - the professor had a lottery to gain access to him?

JACOBS: Exactly. That's right. It was a lottery and I lost.


JACOBS: So there were only 10 people who got in.

LUDDEN: Is there a lottery per semester or was this something he just came up with under popular demand? Or how did that come about?

JACOBS: I believe it is. Every semester, there's a Google hang out with him. And some professors were more accessible, so it all depended on the professor. My cosmology professor held virtual office hours in Second Life, which is the online virtual world, and - but he was very - he warned us not to try it unless we were very adapted to Second Life. And I have never been on Second Life, so I was scared off.

LUDDEN: I have - I've never been on it either. I don't know. Is that a video, I mean, video? Email? Do you have any idea? I guess you didn't do it.


JACOBS: Yeah, it's sort of a virtual world where, you know, they set up a virtual classroom that you can - you have an avatar and you actually go in and talk to the professor's avatar.

LUDDEN: Now you write that the world of MOOC is trying to address this issue of inaccessibility. What are some things they're thinking about or toying with?

JACOBS: Yeah. They know it's a challenge, and they are doing several things. There's - they're recruiting more experienced students to guide the discussions, and there's also thoughts of an offline-online hybrid model. So you would watch the professor on video, and then you would go to an actual classroom and talk to a local professor. So if you're in Quito, Ecuador, you know, you would go to a classroom in Quito.

LUDDEN: OK. Let's - if you have had a surprise when you took a MOOC course, let us know about it. Our number is 800-989-8255, or send us an email: Let's bring a listener in. Jonathan in Lexington, Massachusetts. Welcome.

JONATHAN: Oh, thank you. Thank you. It's great to talk to your guest. I really enjoyed your article. Actually, I'm involved with a similar project. It's a bit more kind of systematic, and I'm actually attempting to take enough MOOC courses over the course of 2013 to get the equivalent of a liberal arts bachelor degree in 12 months (unintelligible) four years. So I'm actually in - well, I just finished my freshman year, and then I'm kind of - have been taking over 14 courses since the beginning of the year for a total of 32 towards the end of the year and...

JACOBS: Did you have to quit your job? How did you get the time to do this?

JONATHAN: Well, it's my project. I'm actually doing it as part of a kind of year-long effort to kind of just reflect on online learning. I got a website called Degree of Freedom where I'm sort of doing daily analysis of kind of the different things I'm learning from the experience. Because, you know, like you, I definitely felt that things like the discussion groups could vary quickly, sort of - the conversation could dissipate. But at the same time, if you find a sort of smaller cohort of students that you can interact with, that seems to be successful for some people to kind of create their own smaller communities.

LUDDEN: So, Jonathan, what was your biggest surprise in this immersion project of yours?

JONATHAN: Well, I would say, you know, the biggest one is really that if you are a self-motivated learner, meaning, you know, you're going to - even though you know you can the same grade on a paper by putting one hour into it, you know, versus putting three, that if you put the three into it to really kind of teach yourself something while you're writing or, you know, its (unintelligible) do the reading, make sure you'll slowly listen to the lecturers. Take notes, you know? Go through it like it's, you know, as rigorous a learning experience. You can get as much as you could out of an actual college class. I think the high dropout rates that people talk about are really, you know, there's a lot of reasons for them, but I think that a lot of it is because some people sign up not realizing, hey, this really is a college class with, you know, that same level demand. And if you bring the right mindset to it, then you can really get, you know, as much out of it as you put into it.

LUDDEN: All right. Jonathan, thanks so much for the call.

JONATHAN: Thank you.

LUDDEN: So, A.J., an upbeat there, upbeat assessment in the end.

JACOBS: Yeah. I mean, I think it is a lot about self-motivation. And I didn't expect that much work, the amount of work. You know, some classes you have to work 10, 15 hours a week. I took also some guts as we used to call them in college. So some that really easy, just and hour a week. And you have to do these assignments, and I had to write some essays. And what's interesting you have - you get graded by your peers. So other students grade you. And I wrote an essay for my philosophy class. And overall, they were kind. My graders were kind, but I bristled in every little negative thing they said. You know, I was like, who died and made you professor?


LUDDEN: Oh, we have an email from Stephanie. She writes: The thing that surprised me the most was there were people that actually cheated on papers. Blatant plagiarism. Why would anyone cheat on a MOOC?


JACOBS: Well, you do get - at the end, you get a certificate. It doesn't really count for anything official, but you get - it's like a little badge. And cheat - that - as MOOCs evolve and they actually start counting for college credit, which I think they will, that's going to be a big problem. I also, as a journalist, of course, I cheated just to see how easy it was. And I was able to Google the answers to my genetics quiz and my cosmology quiz.

LUDDEN: Uh-oh.

JACOBS: Yeah. There are companies now that are doing online proctoring. So they offer a service where they will have people watch you over a video feed so that you don't cheat.

LUDDEN: OK. Let's take another call now. Rashad(ph) in Austin. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

RASHAD: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I took a MOOC through Coursera and it was organic chemistry course and I failed miserably at it. And it sort of gave me the understanding that courses like organic chemistry and sort of these, you know, higher level classes I don't think are really the way MOOC should be - or courses that should be offered through MOOC, especially if it's going to be for a college credit. Where they should be used for college credit are courses like sociology, political science, history where you have engineering students at the University of Texas - why are they paying $2,000 in credit or whatever it is to pay through sociology class when it has nothing to do with their major? They just need it to fulfill a requirement.

So I think that's the reason why we have so much debt in America. And if students can be funneled to a course like through Coursera or a MOOC where that MOOC - where they can take that sociology class, you know, get that credit for 150 bucks or whatever they're charging, I mean, that can really save a lot of money for students. And it's just ridiculous that, you know, you're not going to remember anything from your sociology class 10 years later. So why are you spending so much money to take it?

LUDDEN: OK. Well, perhaps, Rashad, you wouldn't say that to a sociology major, would you?


RASHAD: Sociology major, of course, but then the sociology major, maybe he can take their prep chemistry course, which they have to take to fulfill their science requirement. They should take that through Coursera, maybe, or a MOOC because again, it's not related to their major, so why spend so much money and so much time taking a course that is not related? You know, you can get just as much out of it doing it through a MOOC.

LUDDEN: All right. Thanks so much, Rashad. A.J.

JACOBS: And if I could just add one thing to that. I think that is one of the great hopes of MOOCs is that it will flatten education and it'll provide - making much more equal. So someone in a developing country who has no money can still watch the lectures from these top schools. Interestingly, I think it makes education - the students more equal, but it makes the professors more unequal.

LUDDEN: That's right. You talk about celebrity professors now.

JACOBS: You have these - they turn into celebrity professors so they have these tens of thousands of students and you look at some of the discussion boards and it looks like a one-direction fan page. You know, they're talking about the professor's smile and the super-cool sweater he's wearing. So I think one of the dangers is that that you get this breed of A-list celebrity professors who have a lopsided sway over the landscape of ideas.

LUDDEN: All right. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Another caller now. Harriet(ph) in Chicago, Illinois. Hi, Harriet. Welcome to the show.

HARRIET: Hello. I - Jonathan, I think you missed the gem of the Coursera courses and the MOOCs. I took modern and contemporary poetry at Upon - or coming out of Upon - and the Professor Phil Reese was totally accessible to the students. He really reached out to students who had special needs and he was available by personal email. And our discussion forums were completely dedicated to the subject of the poems and not anything silly.

JACOBS: Well, it's interesting. You were not the first person. I've gotten about three or four emails from students in that very class, who said that they had a very interactive experience. I've had a lot of emails from other people who had a similar experience to mind. So it sounds like I am going to have to take that course.

LUDDEN: All right. Harriet, thank you.

HARRIET: Well, it's going to be offered again in the fall.

LUDDEN: Thank you so much, Harriet.

HARRIET: You're welcome.

LUDDEN: So let's - but less we take your experiences, the universal one there, A.J. Now, A.J., you also talk about trying to recreate that, you know, late night session in the dorm room by interacting with your peers, some of the people taking the course with you. What happened there?

JACOBS: Well, it varied. There are many ways to do this, so sometimes I would actually try to shut my computer and leave the apartment, believe it or not, and meet them in three dimensions. That did not always worked out. I went to a study group at a Brooklyn diner for my history class and no one showed up except for me. So that was kind of sad. I also did several Google hangouts, these video or Skype hangouts, and those were actually very interesting because you got such an international group. So I had people from Brazil and the Philippines putting in their perspective on history. So it definitely varied.

And then the boards where you type in your thoughts, they're also a mixed bag. You get some trolls who, you know, they make fun of the professors' accents, for instance. But then you also get some very thoughtful people. In my genetics class, I asked - I wondered if there was an evolutionary reason why so many people refuse to believe in evolution. And I got some very thoughtful responses.

LUDDEN: OK. Let's squeeze in one last quick call here. Arlene in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We have just a moment left, but go ahead, Arlene.

ARLENE: Hi. I just want to share that I've been taking the Secret of Life MOOC through ex. and it was actually something I heard about on NPR and enrolled. I'm a business consultant, so biology is kind of opposite direction for me. And although it's been extremely difficult and the problems that sometimes seem to be ridiculously hard, you realize along the way that you're actually learning a tremendous amount. And it's just really rewarding from that perspective.

LUDDEN: Thank you so much. So, A.J. Jacobs, obviously we have a lot of people who are signing up for these things as they become more widely available. Where do you see the movement going in and what are your lessons learned?

JACOBS: Well, I see that it is - it will continue. I mean, it is - I don't think it's going away and some people call it a fad and some people say it's a revolution. I am more on the side that is going to have a huge impact. It's so hard to predict what that impact will be. I think it will be overall good, especially because it allows people all over the world who don't have a lot of resources to get access to education. But it's got a huge number of challenges; the interaction, the cheating and many more.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, let us know how you do in your next course in the spring. A.J. Jacobs' latest book is "Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection." His essay "Two Cheers for Web U!" appeared in Sunday's issue of The New York Times. You can find a link to that piece on our website. And A.J. joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you so much.

JACOBS: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Tomorrow, Neal Conan is back and so is the Political Junkie. Ken Rodin will be here with a new trivia question. You don't want to miss that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Laden in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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