Education for the masses — effective, but will it get you a job?

moocFor all those that have ever dreamt of going to Harvard, MIT, or Stanford '€” here's your chance! World-class universities have been making many of their classes available online for free to anyone that is interested, through what is known as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). I recently took a MOOC, with 58,000 of my peers, and it got me pondering about whether this is the future of education (and networking) to better one's career.

The course I took was Coursera's Introduction to Machine Learning '€” one of the most popular MOOCs out there. It was offered for the first time in April 2012, and over 100,000 students enrolled. The course is taught by Dr. Andrew Ng, a professor from Stanford University and co-founder of Coursera. Like many other online classes, it is geared towards a general audience such that someone like me, who doesn't have a background in computer science, can fully understand the material.

The course ran for ten weeks, each week offering new lecture videos, review questions, and programming assignments, the latter two of which were used to evaluate the students and determine whether or not they passed the course. Full of enthusiasm, I was determined to complete the course, but quickly realized that there is some real substance to the materials. Lecture times averaged about two hours (three with note taking) and after completing all of the assignments, I figure I spent about seven to eight hours on the course each week. Quite a time commitment, but the format of the course, with its set schedule and deadlines, likely helped me invest the time and ultimately pass the course (unlike the majority of students, as only about 10% actually received a statement of accomplishment).

Going to class with 60,000 others

MOOCs have given universities unprecedented reach, and while many post-secondary institutions struggle with keeping their class sizes down, there is virtually no limit to online education. It may seem highly impersonal and distant to take a course over the internet, and with so many students. However, a huge student body also establishes a strange sense of community and represents a great source of information. The course forum is very active, and encourages a constant stream of questions and answers. According to Coursera, responses posted to the machine learning forum are answered, on average, in about 22 minutes.

Online and in person study groups popped up everywhere, in locations ranging from China to San Francisco, where like-minded individuals could share and exchange ideas through social media. While, sadly, there was no study group in Alberta, I did join a Facebook group that has yielded some very interesting discussions and potential future collaborations.

The way of the future?

Will MOOCs replace physical attendance at universities, and instead let you obtain your Harvard degree for free online? It seems unlikely '€” for now at least. While many institutions are joining the movement to deliver their materials online (e.g. Coursera, edX), many of these courses are quick to point out that the certificate they offer is not equivalent to completing the class at their institution (see certificate). There are also concerns about cheating, since there is no real way to authenticate who completes an assignment. Coursera tries to address this through its Signature Track program, which was introduced last week and authenticates each student, in part through each individual's biometric typing pattern. This is available at a cost of $30-$100 per course, and provides students with verified course completion certificates.

In my view, the most important part about an education is actually learning the materials. Under those criteria, Coursera definitely provided me with a great education. Ng is an outstanding instructor and while he was not approachable himself, the student community made up for that in most ways.

While it is unlikely that recruiters will greatly consider this certificate of completion as proof that an individual can keep up with computer science students from Stanford, it may still prove useful in helping people find jobs. Succeeding in self-directed studies reflects certain personal characteristics, such as dedication and curiosity. But ultimately, the benefits of any education are most effectively demonstrated by applying its knowledge. For me, I plan to do just that by participating in machine learning competitions, which should help me figure out whether this MOOC successfully taught me a thing or two.