03/25/2013 11:49 am ET Updated May 25, 2013

MOOCs and What Makes a Class?

This week, the Degree of Freedom web site took at look at the components that make up a MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) with the goal of determining how they compared to equivalent components in traditional classroom-based college courses.

These components included:

Lectures -- Generally, lectures are lectures are lectures and while MOOCs will generally split a professor's classroom session (which normally go for 45-90 minutes) into smaller increments (10-15 minutes for some subjects, but as little as 1-2 minutes for others), the quality of the lecture component of a class has more to do with the talent of the professor (and his or her comfort level in front of a camera) than it does with the technology used to deliver that content.

Given their nature, MOOCs do not provide for the give-and-take/Q&A one would get in a lecture hall where students could interrupt and interact with their prof. But since MOOCs provide students the chance to tap into high levels of professorial talent at no cost, this loss of interaction can be a price worth paying (especially for subjects that would normally be taught in large lecture halls that tend to inhibit discussion and interaction in the brick-and-mortar environment).

Homework -- Given the huge numbers involved with most MOOC classes (where tens or even hundreds of thousands of students have enrolled in the same class), homework tends to take the form of automatically graded question sets either inserted at strategic points in a video lecture (usually to confirm comprehension) or offered at the end of a week's lecture series to provide students the means to test their knowledge.

As expected, these types of homework assignments worked best for more technical subjects (like classes in statistics and logic that are part of my Freshman year Degree of Freedom lineup) that can be tested using questions with correct and incorrect answers. For more subjective content (such as philosophy and literature), homework content has so far been either perfunctory or non-existent.

Reading -- Reading still pretty much consists of absorbing text off a page (whether that page is printed or luminescent), which is why the issue of reading within a MOOC vs. traditional classroom essentially boils down to how much reading is assigned.

This has also varied considerably from course to course, from my Property and Law and Logic courses (that had no required reading) to a Modernism course that required approximately one book or 40-50 pages of essays per week. From what I remember of my original college experience, even this seems lighter than I would expect from a college-level course. But this does open up questions of whether the role of a college class should be enforced reading of a certain volume of content and/or whether students can take responsibility for not just doing the reading but coming up with their own reading lists to supplement what they're learning.

Discussion -- The bull sessions and hallway discussions of the physical college environment are replaced by online forums, social networks and video conferencing in the MOOC environment. And like reading, discussion largely boils down to a numbers game. In some cases, the numbers issue is whether students are interacting with each other enough in these virtual coffee shops, but on the other end of the number line, forums that include thousands of comments can become so unwieldy that interesting submissions can get buried before they turn into rewarding conversations.

Assessment -- How quizzes, tests, grading writing assignments and classroom projects are generated, submitted and scored is such a big and important issue (especially as we explore whether MOOCs and other "new learning" methods should count for college credit) that it will become the topic of an entire week's postings in April, coupled with a summary of that analysis here.

So stay tuned.