MOOC Hard: The Present and Future of Online Learning

Once upon a time, there was a professor that posted videos of his lectures to the Internet, available for free! Eventually, people thought that was a really cool idea, so they started doing it more and more frequently. Then, someone got the bright idea to put them together like entire courses on the Internet, allowing students to interact via comments and a discussion board. These courses were taught by experts at high profile universities, and sometimes these courses attracted a lot of enrolment, like, 50,000 or so students in a course at a time. Then, some universities started getting more serious about this whole massive open online course thing (in fact, they even started to call them that: Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, for short), and so they even added tests to the online courses, and sent out digital participation certificates to those that passed. And everyone lived mostly happily ever after.

That’s how the story has gone so far. Most MOOCs are, more or less, video versions of university lectures. Where are the peer-to-peer interactions? Where are the special effects? Why are the video lectures 1.83 hours long when every youtube video I watch is less than ten minutes? Ladies, gentlemen, and Amoebas, prepare yourselves for the MOOCs of the future.

One group I’ve really been impressed by is iversity – I took The Future of Storytelling with them, and it was really ahead of it’s time. There are things you can do with video that you can’t do in a classroom (tours of museums, interviews with people who aren’t going to visit your classroom, etc), and it did those things. It was super peer-to-peer, with entire assignments acting as massive class-collaborations. The lectures were short, each just a few minutes long. That group is just one example (more below), but I’d bet my compound microscope that we will see more of this approach in the next few years (if I’m wrong by 2020, the first to comment gets it).

To check out MOOCs, learn a whole metric tonne of stuff, and watch MOOCs evolve, below is a list of some of the site’s I’ve frequented over the years. I’m struggling to name a course that has taught me more than one MOOC I took part in, called Writing in the Sciences (and based on the amount of poorly written articles I’ve read, I think most scientists could learn a lot from it too). Also, if you are a teacher, I strongly encourage you to seek out courses that you might be able to use in your class, or get inspired by for your own teaching. Between them, there are hundreds of courses offered in many disciplines, for free:






OpenHPI-logo khan-academy logo


Is there one that you’d like to see added? Leave it in the comments! Either way, go out and MOOC hard.

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How do we communicate science? If science is a way of thinking, how do you teach that? Science is freaking cool, but how can we make it even cooler?

Those questions then got me thinking more generally; about how scientists do science, and how much better it could be if scientists communicated better with one another, and with the public. Also, about how technologies like the “Internet” could make science more efficient.

Is there a mathematical theorem that holds the answer to how to present scientific ideas to others? If you’re tallying YouTube hit counts, then the answer to science communication must involve using cute videos of cats… But really, what even are the metrics to measuring the impact of sharing a scientific finding? Is it publication count? Citation count? Some more elaborate index system?

Complex problems like these requires complex solutions, which is why I’ve created this blog. I’ll be covering topics about science communication, from MOOCs, to Open Science, to wearing nerdy t-shirts, to riveting scientometric details, to discussing standardized units.

If you think that improving science communication means improving the world, you’re in the right place! Whether you are a tenured microbiology professor who owns an SEM microscope, an amateur astronomer with a telescope that costs the same as a nice dinner for two, or are really just anyone with any interest in scientific progress, we’re all within the scope of science together.

Let’s get to it!