What I Learned Taking Four Years’ Worth of Classes, in 12 Months, Using MOOCs

Getting schooled.
Feb. 6 2014 11:41 PM

My Year of MOOCs

Lessons learned from earning the equivalent of a B.A. in 12 months, online.

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Illustration by Robert Neubecker

I walked into the evening cocktail hour at the recent American Philosophical Association (APA) Eastern Division Meeting even more self-conscious than the job-hunting graduate students nervously prowling the halls. For they at least had Ph.D.s, while my philosophical training consisted of just one year of intense study—study conducted entirely online, facilitated by massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other forms of free learning.

I was attending APA as the self-assigned “final exam” for my Degree of Freedom One Year BA project, an experiment designed to determine whether it was possible to learn the equivalent of a four-year liberal arts bachelor’s program in just 12 months using the online classes that have been in the news so much over the last two years. 

In fact, it was those very news stories that inspired my project. For in 2012, declared the “Year of the MOOC” by the New York Times, enthusiasm for massive open courses was running high. MOOC boosters (from Thomas Friedman to Udacity Founder Sebastian Thrun) were talking about an academy about to be disrupted to its foundations. And elected officials in California and Florida answered by introducing legislation that would give college credit to students taking them.

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By the end of my “sophomore year,” in June of 2013, however, a MOOC backlash had set in, with educators questioning the value of a teaching method where less than one in 10 of those who enroll complete a course. Legislation that proposed granting credit for MOOCs was shelved or watered down amid complaints that MOOCs (many offered by venture-backed companies) might decimate the educational landscape in order to turn a profit for investors. 

These critics had something in common with earlier enthusiasts: little to no experience taking actual MOOC classes. That was why the voice I wanted to add to the conversation was that of a student—one who had completed the number of courses required to meet the distribution and degree requirements of a traditional liberal arts B.A. program.

I have always been a recreational learner whose interest in college-level courses was not sated when I earned a B.A. from Wesleyan in the 1980s. And while that degree was in chemistry, recent self-education (using podcasts and iTunes U lectures) pulled toward history and humanities. So when it came time to pick a major for my One Year BA, I chose philosophy.

It took a while to get into the rhythm of juggling eight classes every three months (many from the “Big Three”—Coursera, edX and Udacity—but also lesser-known free-learning providers like Canvas, NovoEd, Open Yale, and the Saylor Foundation) and blogging about the experience daily. In May of 2013 I added a weekly podcast interview series to the mix that let me share what students, professors and entrepreneurs involved with different aspects of the MOOC movement had to say about an educational phenomenon playing out in real time. 

So what did I learn from this experience (beyond some Kant and Heidegger)?

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