01/09/2014 03:57 pm ET Updated Mar 08, 2014

A MOOC BA? No Way!

The following post synthesizes material appearing on the Degree of Freedom web site upon the completion of the author's "One Year BA" project.

Well, my Degree of Freedom project just wrapped and in order to give visibility into what that project involved, I have put together this portfolio that I hope provides the evidence needed to demonstrate that I actually did the work associated with the courses that make up my "One Year BA" and, more importantly, learned what each of these courses was created to teach.

A key evidence element is a course review which appears in most (soon all) of the portfolio "slates" which document individual classes. Where appropriate, grades and work samples are also included as evidence, but I hope anyone examining the project will take the time to read through the review associated with an individual course since this is an example of the kind of evidence that cannot be hacked or hand-waved, but must instead come out of actually understanding what you have been taught.

I still have a half dozen slates to finish up, but for now I'm hoping the portfolio is good enough to underwrite a higher level discussion of whether a One Year BA (or, more specifically, a BA worth of courses taken using only MOOCs and other free learning resources) can be compared to a degree earned at a traditional, residential, liberal arts college.

Today, I will argue why it might not.

As a backdrop, after calculating that it was indeed possible to fit 30+ MOOC and other free learning courses that would meet the degree requirements of a liberal arts college or university into a twelve month timeframe, I did another (less rigorous) calculation to see if it was theoretically possible to cram four years of college into one if I were enrolled in a traditional residential college or university which would involve taking classes at three times the normal pace for a matriculated student (assuming classes would go on all year - including during the summer).

Unsurprisingly, no school calendar I could find would allow someone to fit this many classes into such a short time period. But, more importantly for this discussion, having gone through a traditional four-year college degree program a while back, it was clear to me that even if scheduling were not a problem, trying to fit 32 semester-long, brick-and-mortar college classes into twelve months would not be possible given the workload of courses created by professors who assume their students are each taking no more than 4-5 classes at a time.

By this logic then, the reason a One Year MOOC BA could work while a One Year residential BA would not is because -- on average -- MOOC classes make fewer demands on students than do their residential equivalents.

Now that "on average" is an important point since I can think of several classes I've taken this year that successfully modeled themselves on traditional semester-long courses. And while other classes varied in terms of scope and rigor, the ones that were not modeled on existing semester-long courses were generally less demanding on students than were courses deliberately designed to mimic residential equivalents.

In some cases, professors -- freed from the tyranny of the semester system -- were able to focus on just a single topic they loved to teach. Many of my favorite humanities and social sciences courses fell into this category. Some courses were lecture only (a topic I've taken up before, so I won't repeat those arguments here). And in a few cases, the course went on for the number of week's you'd expect for a full-semester class, but the level of demand placed on students (who were only asked to pass a few relatively easy multiple-choice quizzes) created a contrast between the heft of the material being taught and the lightness of what students were asked to do with what they were studying.

This "putting your learning to work" is a general category where MOOCs seemed less demanding overall than the classroom courses I remember from long ago. Even having gone the extra step of fulfilling both required and optional work when it was available, I probably ended up writing fewer than a dozen papers during my "four-year" degree program. And, as I've complained about on several occasions, assessment (whether as part of weekly quizzes or final exams) was pretty light across the board in almost all the courses I've taken.

So if you were to ask me if the work I put into the last twelve months is equivalent to the amount I put into four years of residential college back in the 1980s, the answer would have to be no.

But this brings up the question of whether the learning that goes on either at a residential college or through an online equivalent requires that every class be packaged into a 12-16 week semester with a specific number of lectures per week coupled with a specific number of papers, tests and other assignments in order to be considered legitimate.

Which triggers another question: Even if my "One Year BA" did not require me to spend as much time on each individual class as I had to in order to earn my original four year degree, does that necessarily mean I learned less in the process?

An answer to that question will form the basis of a defense for college equivalency of my One Year BA later this week.