I've been watching the progress of the MOOC (massive open online course) sites for the past while, and trying them out. I'm always interested in learning new things, in any subject area, and self-paced online education works great for me.

Some framing general thoughts:

  • I do not like a lot of the traditional education system, which tends to focuses too much on rote memorization and correct methods of information regurgitation instead of understanding and real world application of knowledge.
  • I have no interest in "passing a course", I just want to learn stuff
  • Related to previous, I have no interest in taking tests or doing assignments, unless they're for a more fun or interesting reason than "do this to pass the course" -- in many cases on these sites I will do zero-credit inline quizzes and skip the for-credit assignments
  • I do not use discussion forums on any of these sites, so have no idea about how good/bad they are
  • My available time varies week-to-week and day-to-day -- some weeks I may spend 8hrs on learning, some zero -- so the more flexible a site is in terms of dates and times the better for me
  • My tablet is a Nexus 7, for context when I mention it below; I like to watch learning videos on it instead of sitting at the computer

Here's my summary of experiences so far with Khan Academy, Coursera, edX, and Udacity, and some pros and cons of each. The order they're presented in is based on when I started using each site.

Khan Academy

One of the first of the current new wave of online education sites, started originally by Sal Khan based on videos he made to teach his young relatives math. The majority of content on the site is still presented by Sal, though there are some new instructors now as well, especially in the content areas being created by partnerships with other sites.

Some people might not include this in the official MOOC category because their videos are not organized into "courses" per se, just lessons in broad categories, but it was definitely one inspiration for the MOOC movement.

Pros:

  • Ever increasing breadth of topics and subject areas
  • The website works as expected, and is continually being improved
  • Blog that occasionally has posts about how the site works and is developed, as well as the "new courses" and "press/student response" posts that the other sites' blogs have
  • Coach/Student functionality (I use this with my daughter)
  • Uses out-of-the-box YouTube videos which work properly on my tablet
  • Game-based elements (points for viewing videos, badges, quiz tracking system) add fun

Cons:

  • Not organized into courses like a true MOOC, so you can't get accreditation
  • Not affiliated with any major mainstream educational institutions
  • Inclusion of primary and secondary level content may not appeal to some, most MOOC sites focus on post-secondary level education

Conclusion:

I love this site, both because it's easy to watch a video or two when I have a few free minutes and because it's just the most fun. I plan to keep using it frequently.

Coursera

One of the big mainsteam MOOC companies, Coursera is a startup tech company that partners with many mainstream universities to present their courses in a MOOC format. There's a huge variety of subjects available, and more being added continually.

Unfortunately they seem to be a bit a victim of their own success, and have had some site outages and other technical issues recently. They're also having a lot of growing pains on the process side, both with users and instructors being confused about how a MOOC should work, and how the Coursera framework works, and expectations are constantly being adjusted. This gets a bit annoying after you've done a few courses and it keeps happening.

Pros:

  • Real university courses in an online setting
  • Wide variety of topics and subject areas -- hundreds of courses available
  • Most courses have a certificate for successful completion, and in some cases may be usable towards a real degree (depending on lots of variables)
  • Coursera is rolling out regular updates to their site

Cons:

  • Definitely the worst user interface of these sites
  • Recurring technical issues affecting some or all courses
  • Recurring expectations gap on both user and instructor side
  • Implementation of the Coursera framework varies widely depending on the professor/team presenting the course, which can be confusing and annoying
  • Was using custom video delivery, I think they've now switched to YouTube and a custom player, but either way it doesn't work well on my tablet
  • Courses have set start dates, test/assignment dates, and end dates, and there's no flexibility -- this is consistent with offline university courses, but not necessarily consistent with how people want to use a MOOC

Conclusion:

Lots of good content, but clumsy site and ongoing growing pains make it more painful to use. Also, strict adherence to university scheduling for courses decreases my interest, but may work for you. I've completed a couple of courses here, but dropped more because of timing issues (I got too busy with real life midway-through). I'll probably take more courses just because of the wide variety of subjects available, hopefully they can iron out the technical issues.

edX

A collaboration between Harvard and MIT to create an online learning site, has now expanded to also include courses from UC Berkeley. Overall my impression of the site itself is fairly good, though the selection of courses is limited.

Pros:

  • Good user interface, though features are somewhat limited
  • New user (student) training available, and instructors appear prepared for the MOOC format and how the site works

Cons:

  • Limited number of universities means limited number of courses and subjects available -- only around 10 courses available
  • Proprietary video player doesn't work well on my tablet
  • Courses have set start dates, test/assignment dates, and end dates, and there's no flexibility -- this is consistent with offline university courses, but not necessarily consistent with how people want to use a MOOC

Conclusion:

My experience with the edX site itself is generally quite good -- the design of the site is nice, everything works as expected, and there's training on how to use the site. However, selection of content is quite limited, and I had to drop the first course I tried (a computer science course) because the course content and video editing were so bad. The next course I'm taking has hour-long lecture videos that aren't broken up into smaller segments, which isn't going to work well with how I usually use these sites.

I'm assuming the supposed appeal of this site is in the big name universities, but I don't really care about that, if the actual content doesn't improve it's unlikely I'll be using it again, especially since I can get most of the same subjects elsewhere. Which is unfortunate, because I liked the site.

Udacity

Udacity is a startup formed by several university professors, some of whom are acting as faculty presenting the courses. It is not directly affiliated with any mainstream universities that I can tell, but is offering university-level content. The focus so far is mostly math, science, and computer science.

Caveat on the comments below, I'm only one unit in to my first course on this site.

Pros:

  • Site design and usability is very good
  • Content and use of site features by the instructor is very good
  • Uses normal YouTube player, so works well on my tablet
  • Blog with technical details about how the site works and is built, as well as normal marketing posts
  • Recruit instructors who are subject matter experts from the business community, not just from academia
  • Focus more on real world applications of what's being taught
  • No hard dates for courses or assignments that I can see, complete on your schedule, though I'm not sure if the forums are still as active once the course has been live for a while (since I didn't use the forums)

Cons:

  • Very few subject areas and few classes available so far - only 18 classes in total that I can see
  • ... I can't think of any others

Conclusion:

Of the three mainstream MOOC sites I've used, this is the best across the board for my purposes, the only concern is the shortage of content and narrow subject areas. Hopefully they'll continue to develop more over time.

In Closing

Out of the four sites discussed above, I'll most definitely continue using Khan Academy and Udacity. I'll probably cherry-pick a course or two from Coursera if there's something I'm particularly interested, and am unlikely to use edX much once I complete my current courses there.

I'm particularly interested in following the sites that are willing to share how they architect the technology of their sites behind the scenes, since building big web site infrastructure is what I enjoy doing. It also shows a willingness to give back to the community, and an understanding that sharing knowledge doesn't necessarily mean giving up your competitive advantage, which are views I like to promote.

Now... back to watching course videos!