MOOCS: My Oppressive and Obligatory Classroom Servitude

Classroom in Jansons School of Business, Coimbatore, India

Classroom in Jansons School of Business, Coimbatore, India

As a Lean Six Sigma practitioner I’ve led and sat in hundreds if not thousands of days’ worth of in-class sessions. I’ve also, like most, sat through various online training courses, some o.k., some excruciatingly weak. So it is noteworthy to follow the rapid developments of the MOOCS or Massive Open Online Courses popping up. A previous post described one by MIT called MITx (see “MIT to Offer Free Online Courses“.)

Two recent examples are Udacity (, a start-up launched by Stanford computer-science professor Sebastian Thrun. He announced the concept in January 2012; by February they started offering courses. In October 2012 it raised $15 million in investment and had 500,000 before the year’s end.

Another start-up is called Coursera ( It began in April 2012 and was founded by Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, former colleagues of Mr. Thrun. They raised $16 million in financing and by December had 2 million members. One course, its most popular titled “How to Reason and Argue” had close to 200,000 participants. Coursera has 33 partners including the University of Toronto, University of Michigan, John Hopkins University, Princeton, and Duke.

Harvard and MIT have tossed their hats into the ring; they each will contribute $30 million to a venture called edX, a non-profit organization that will offer Ivy League university courses. A group of British schools such as the Open University and St. Andrews are forming Futurelearn.

Why the rush and will turn into a gold rush or the educational equivalent of Napster — intellectual capital given away or sold at a fraction of its worth? And what is the best (or a way) or putting a valuation on a course like “How to Reason and Argue?” Part of the answer is that there is a strong belief that the state-of-the-technological art and cheap bandwidth have finally conspired to create palatable and effective online educational experiences. Online courses allow us to press pause and rewind; they often mix videos with short knowledge-testing quizzes. Online courses also offer the chance for massive virtual classes of students to interact, to debate, and to even mark each others’ work.

Yet there are challenges to overcome. One is that of “certification” in the form of degrees whose provenance is trustworthy. The other is the worry that online courses are vulnerable to cheating and plagiarism. Yet there are potential solutions to these issues. Some form of on-the-job validation through apprenticeship to achieve final degree status is one possibility, not unlike the skills many (although not all) Lean Six Sigma Black Belts must demonstrate to achieve certification. While cheating is a concern, it also exists in traditional settings.

There is one aspect of online education that no amount of gadgetry can eliminate: whether online or in-class, great courses take a lot of time and care to create. The challenge, in this writer’s view, is not creating the delivery mechanism, it is finding and funding great educators who are also great communicators.

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