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An Investigation into Online Learning The founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, is accredited with saying, “The Internet is becoming

the town square for the global village of tomorrow.” With the recent growth spurt in online education opportunities, Gates could have added that that down the road from the town square the would be a free school for everyone. That’s right, free. Over the past year there have been huge advancements in massively open online courses (commonly referred to as MOOCs) provided by some of the most prestigious universities and colleges in the world. At the forefront of this movement is Coursera (sponsored by 35 schools including, Stanford, Brown, Princeton, Columbia, and John Hopkins) and edX (sponsored by Harvard, Georgetown, MIT, UC Berkley, and the University of Texas). This semester I have done some personal investigation into these programs and other online learning organizations and methods. Through interviews, research, and taking of two online courses, I have glimpsed into what could possibly be the future of education. However, online education has a long way to go if it will ever replace in person teachers and classrooms. Ever since the first computers became widely accessible, teachers have been constantly integrating new technology into curriculum, in order to prepare students for an ever changing technological world. Computers and new technology have been billed by some as “deus ex machina” (god from a machine in Latin) meaning that, “most technologies have been touted as potential ‘transformative’ solutions to ‘insoluble educational’ problems even though they were not invented with that intention. They were indeed unexpected "gods" from the machine.” (Zhao 2001). Seen as the great equalizer, the hope was that technology could someday provide quality education and social agency for all peoples. Today, with the rise of free MOOCs like Coursera

and edX this could possibly become reality. However, is massively open education really providing the educational tools that people need? Who chooses and designs the courses being taught? From what kinds of cultural and socioeconomic perspectives are MOOC’s curriculum coming from? Indeed access to world class education from ivy league and other prestigious schools is an incredible opportunity for people of lower socioeconomic status and historically oppressed identities and cultures, yet it continues to give agency to those who already possess power and privilege. By putting widely used curriculum in the hands of ivy leaguers and their contemporaries, they continue to have power over what is taught, how it is taught, and as a result the ability to control the way the masses think and what they know. The vast majority of courses on Coursera and edX are designed and taught by American highly educated white males of relatively high socioeconomic status. These professors who already possess power and privilege in our society now have the agency to pick and choose what to teach, how to teach it, and how to a subject is presented to a massive amount of people. This inherently gives even more power to those who already have it, and puts a lens on academia through the perspective of American white males. I am not trying to say that there is a conspiracy that professors on edX and Coursera have some master plan to keep themselves in power. What I am saying is that suddenly a massive amount of people from all different kinds of backgrounds will be looking at the world from a perspective that has historically been the dominate narrative in society, and other perspectives that are just a valid are diminished and underrepresented. An example of this is the Human Computer Interaction course I took on Coursera this semester, the professor said that the best layout of a website is one that reads left to right then top to bottom because the top right corner is where we

unconsciously start scanning a webpage (like reading a book). This completely disregards languages that read right to left or top to bottom first. I am not saying that his point doesn’t have value. Many languages do read from left to right top to bottom and website readability largely is affected by this. However, he made the assumption that his audience comes from a background that is conducive to this sort of website design aesthetic, when many people’s first language many not be English or one of the other western languages that read left to right. The professor holds a privilege as an English speaking American, where he can assume that the majority of people read a website just as he does. My experience with Human Computer Interaction (sponsored by Stanford University), was very odd to say the least. The course was concentrated around what makes a good user interface in a computer program, or on a website and so on. The funny thing was that the course website was not a good user interface and contradicted a lot of their points that were made in lectures and videos. It was hard to find the syllabus and it was never quite clear what was expected of students on assignments or in the class in general. There are three “tracks” you can complete, each indicative of how much work you put into the class. The apprentice track was comprised of only lectures and quizzes. By getting an 80% or higher on all the quizzes a student can pass the apprentice track. The studio track (which was the one I was originally aiming for) has additional assignments and projects in addition to the quizzes. Lastly the studio practicum track was for those who had previously completed the studio track and wanted to extend their work in the class. The class was advertised as a beginning course and little to no prior experience in interface design was needed. I generally agree with that. Anyone could grasp the concepts and do well on the quizzes in the class. However, on the studio track the assignments were a very

difficult. As mentioned before, it was never clear what they wanted on their assignments. I thought I completed all the steps, but I ended up missing a lot of things. In addition to that, when I got a grade in an assignment it wasn’t even clear what the grade meant. First you participate in peer grading where you grade the work of others who are taking the course, then you grade yourself. This is a very odd experience and even with the grading training given it still feels weird when there were no concrete expectations in the first place. Even the grade you receive is convoluted. On my submission for assignment one it said, “Your grade is 32, which was calculated based on a combination of the grade you received from your peers and the grade you gave yourself.” How is that calculated? Is 32 a good score? What does 32 mean? I looked through discussion forums and got a variety of different answers. On assignment two I got a score of 52 which apparently was incorrect, because when I posted to the forum about it a TA responded and said that something got messed up in the coding and 52 is actually a 13. But what is 13? On top of all the grading confusion I had to learn two programs, Balsamiq Mockups and Just-In-Mind Prototyper. This was billed as a beginner’s level class, but I think I spent the majority of my time trying to figure out how to use these programs. I wish they put learning the basics of these programs as prerequisite to taking the course because they were incredibly frustrating. Due to all this mishap I ended up only doing the apprentice track because I couldn’t handle the disorganization and unclear expectations on the assignments and projects. When I interviewed Sarah1 about her experience taking Neural Networks and Machine Learning on Coursera (sponsored by the University of Toronto) she described a similar situation. The expectations were unclear and the amount of prerequisites for the course should have been


Pseudonym to protect the individual’s privacy

larger. Students were supposed to have knowledge of one of three computer programming languages as a prerequisite to the course. On the first day of class Sarah got an email saying that they were only going to support one language, and it happened to be the language she was not familiar with. She also ended up dropping the entire course half way through the semester because the programming aspects of the class were so difficult. I found it hard to concentrate when watching the lectures on Coursera. The professor was dull and his lectures did not keep my interest for extended periods of time. He sat talking to the camera with a powerpoint intercut into the video every so often. I found myself pausing the video a lot and then coming back to it later. I began to wonder what was the difference between his lecture and an in person lecture. It was never this hard to pay attention to a subject that I’m very interested in a live person lecture. Maybe it has something to do with, the ability to ask questions for immediate feedback or the relationship between the lecturer and the listener in a live setting. I’m not really sure. However I did have a very different experience with the lectures in the other course I took, Introduction to Computer Science CS50x on edX (sponsored by Harvard). These lectures easily kept my attention. The biggest main difference was that the videos of this lecture were the actual lecture given to Harvard students. So the Harvard professor interacted with his students in the audience and even the TAs had their own lecture videos. There were so many more resources and ways of learning on edX than on Coursera . They had video shorts, discussion boards, problem set walkthroughs, and more. I felt very supported and felt like they were really excited to have me taking the class, even though I’m not there in person. In the syllabus it says, “What ultimately matters in this course is not so much where you end up relative to your classmates [meaning grades], but where you, in week 11 end up relative to yourself

[currently].” This was incredibly empowering and I really commend Harvard for creating such a supportive environment. This course was billed as for beginners and they catered the needs of beginners, but they also had “hacker editions” of assignments for those who were ready to go on to more advanced material. Unlike Coursera it was very clear what exactly they wanted on assignments and it truly felt like they wanted you to succeed. I would definitely take another class on edX and maybe on Coursera. Both the classes I took were computer science based, and it would be interesting to see how taking an online humanities or history would be like. There are so many resources for online education, and I have researched and talked with a lot of people about them this semester. What I have come to discover is that this field has a lot of potential but still has many issues. Over the next few decades it will continue to grow and change. The most important thing for students to know right now is that they need to find which software or online program is best for them.

Readings Anyon, J. (1980). Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work. Journal of Education,
162(1), 67–92.

Barron, A. E., Kemker, K., Harmes, C., & Kalaydjian, K. (2003). Large-Scale Research Study on

Technology in K-12 Schools: Technology Integration as it Relates to the National Technology Standards. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 35(4), 489–507.

Burbules, N. (2004). Ways of Thinking About Educational Quality. Educational Researcher,
ProQuest Education Journals, 33(6), 4–10.

Gorski, P. C. (2008). Insisting on Digital Equity : Reframing the Dominant Discourse on
Multicultural Education and Technology. Urban Education, 44(3), 348–364.

How Coursera, A Free Online Education Service, Will School Us All. (n.d.).Fast Company.

Retrieved December 12, 2012, from

Massachusetts Department of Education. (2002). Assistive Technology Guide for Massachusetts
Schools. Author.

Transforming American Education Learning Powered by Technology: National Educational
Technology Plan 2010. (2010). U.S. Department of Education.

Zhao, Y., & Conway, P. (2001). What’s In, What’s Out - An Analysis of State Educational
Technology Plans. Teachers College Record. Retrieved from

Zhao, Y., Pugh, K., Sheldon, S., & Byers, J. L. (2002). Conditions for Classroom Technology
Innovations. Teachers College Record, 104(3), 482–515.

Interviews Two Hampshire College student, University of Massachusetts professor, Amherst Regional High School Math Teacher, Amherst Regional High School Assistant Principle

CS50x Programs Written In Scratch: • Find Your Friend: A short game where you look in four different houses to find your friend go to to play. In C: • Hello: a simple program where the computer says hello to the user • Greedy: a program that calculates the fewest amount of coins that a cashier can give in change possible • Mario: prints a half pyramid (reminiscent of the game Super Mario Bros) based on a user given height input • Caesar: encrypts a user given string of text using the Caesar cipher • Vigenere: encrypts a user given string of text using the Vigenère cipher • Scramble: (currently assignment) a game where the user has to find as many words as possible in a 4x4 grid of letters before the timer runs out