This story was written by Keith Dawson for UBM DeusM’s community Web site Develop in the Cloud, sponsored by AT&T. It is archived here for informational purposes only because the Develop in the Cloud site is no more. This material is Copyright 2012 by UBM DeusM.

The MOOC Explosion

Now all the colleges want to offer their courses online for free.

Massive open online courses represent the top end of the spectrum of free online learning. But not everyone agrees that developers need them, or university degrees either.

Online education for developers has been a frequent theme here at Develop in the Cloud -- see the related links below. The New York Times this past weekend ran a profile of three of the largest of the new online education initiatives, the MOOCs Udacity, EdX, and Coursera.

Udacity came out of a Stanford Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course. It is a year old and now has a full-time staff of 40. (In the Times profile the academic founders sound not a little dazed at the speed with which the whole field has developed.) Coursera is younger by a few months but has 1.7 million signed-up students. And EdX is the baby of the bunch, getting started just this summer; its first official courses this fall have enrolled 370,000.

All three offer college-level courses in computer science and engineering, math, statistics, and other mostly geeky topics. EdX is aiming for the most rigor and exclusivity. Started by MIT and Harvard, the company has only accepted two other institutions -- Berkeley and the University of Texas system -- to join the fold, while spurning over 100 others. Coursera seems to be going for breadth and scale, having signed up 33 institutions. Udacity is looking to distinguish its offerings by the excellence of its teachers. "We reject about 98 percent of faculty who want to teach with us," their president and COO, David Stavens, told the Times. "Just because a person is the world's most famous economist doesn't mean they are the best person to teach the subject."

Issues of scale
The MOOCs are all grappling with the issues that come with scale. "How do you make the massive feel intimate? That's what everyone is trying to figure out," the Times reports. All offer online forums where students can gather in study groups; Coursera supplies a tool to coordinate physical meetups for students in 1,400 cities around the world. Some professors are teaching a MOOC at the same time they run a live course and are using their real-life students as discussion leaders.

Grading students at Internet scale is an ongoing research project. Some use peer grading; you can imagine the problems that arise out of that when the student body is worldwide, aged 13 to 80+, and scattered across all educational levels. Automated grading is possible for some of the more cut-and-dried subjects; it doesn't work all that well for teaching coding.

One element that is missing today from the fast-growing MOOC scene: Reviews; Yelp for MOOCs. I would be very surprised if there weren't a number of startups at work trying to fill this lacuna.

To call MOOCs disruptive to existing higher educational norms would be vastly to understate the case. The Times article notes a small-scale study carried out with students who had completed both an online course taught by EdX's president, Anant Agarwal, and also a similar course live on campus. Sixty-three percent found the MOOC better, 36 percent said it was comparable, and only 1 percent found it lacking compared to the traditional course.

Another form of disruption showed up in Minnesota, which initially invoked a 20-year-old law to warn Coursera against offering its free courses to residents of that state. After nationwide publicity, the state relented and said it would look at updating that law.

Is college necessary?
Like Peter Thiel, who is paying 20 promising kids not to go to college, some online education initiatives work on the assumption that theoretical knowledge rooted in the academy is not high on the list of things would-be developers need. An outfit called Treehouse sounds almost militant on the subject. Its CEO, Ryan Carson, says "I have a Computer Science degree, so I know exactly what you learn. None of it is relevant." offers this infographic to explain why we should all become literate about code; in their view this has doesn't necessarily have to do with any college-level course, live or online.

Related links