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Confessions of a MOOC Addict

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We live in an age of binge watching television. I confess, I'm no different. But rather than binge watching a whole season of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, my addiction is another creature altogether. I binge watch MOOCs.

A what, you may ask? A MOOC is a Massive Online Open Course. Or a Massive Open Online Course (I keep forgetting which). Basically, its free education on the internet. Usually high quality learning at a university level.

I realized the level of my addiction at a recent conference on science communication. One of the speakers asked who was aware of MOOCs. The whole room raised their hands. She then asked who had started a MOOC. Half the room kept their hands up. Finally, she asked who had completed a MOOC. I looked around and noticed with shock that every eye was on me as the only person left with their hand still raised. It felt like I should stand up and announce, "Hi, I'm John. I'm a MOOC addict."

I first learnt of MOOCs from a TED talk by Daphne Koller, co-founder of the immensely popular site, Coursera. Koller told the tragic story of South Africans trampling each other in their quest for higher education. Her solution to the world's desperate need for education? Entice the world's top universities to put their best courses online for free.

Intrigued, I surfed over to Coursera to check it out. The first course I signed up for was Statistics One, a wonderfully practical introduction to statistics by Princeton University's Andrew Conway. However, in the hustle and bustle of busy life, I found it difficult finding the time (and discipline) to watch all the lectures, complete the quizzes and read the recommended articles.

My MOOC journey hit an irrevocable turning point after the smallest of discoveries. I realized that if I flipped my iPad cover over the panel of our exercise machine, I could watch MOOCs while working out. Suddenly, I could burn through two neglected chores in one fell swoop.

What followed was a period of MOOC binge-watching that continues to this day. I've watched MOOCs on machine learning, public speaking, social network analysis, science communication, big data, climate change, psychology and argumentative reasoning. Currently, I'm doing a MOOC on statistical analysis of FMRI data. Why? Because I can.

I've also found that MOOCs are a great distraction during mindless household chores. While washing the dishes, I also polish off one or two lectures. But I draw the line somewhere -- I never MOOC and drive. That would be dangerous and irresponsible. When I drive, I listen to Chris Mooney podcasts.

My favourite MOOC to date was Social Psychology by Scott Plous. A mind-boggling 200,000 plus people signed up for this course. As well as thought-provoking and entertaining lectures, we were given access to original footage of the most famous (or infamous) experiments in psychology. Watching videos of Stanford university students morphing into sadistic prison wardens, or morally conflicted participants thinking they were electrocuting a screaming man, added a new dimension to my understanding of these historical experiments.

As part of the course, students wrote an essay on how they lived as compassionately as possible on a "Day of Compassion." The class then voted on which student best deserved the Day of Compassion Award. The winner was flown to Stanford University to meet the Dalai Llama. Okay, MOOCs are cool and all, but that's just showing off!

In April, scientists from my own University of Queensland are launching a MOOC on Tropical Coastal Ecosystems. A mind-popping innovation of this MOOC is a mash-up of citizen science and machine learning. Students will perform "virtual field work" as they examine underwater images, categorizing different marine life forms such as coral, clams and crabs. Students then "peer-review" each other's choices -- one feature of MOOCs that makes it possible to assess thousands of students.

Here's where it gets cool. The categorizations from the top students will be added to a computer program that automatically analyzes underwater photos. Students will be training the computer program to get smarter at analyzing photos. Online education, citizen science and machine learning at the same time. That's even more potent multi-tasking than washing the dishes while watching lectures!

The most exciting element of MOOCs is not the one-way flow of information from teacher to student. Students are sending a wealth of data back to educators, informing them what works and what doesn't. In some innovative cases, student data is being incorporated into machine learning algorithms to help with scientific research. I see no immediate signs of my kicking the MOOC habit. But why would I want to?