This is a guest post from Jen Lee, an aquaintence of mine from South Jersey who agreed to share her elearning experiences with us:
I took two MOOC courses at Coursera.org in the Fall of 2012, and am currently enrolled in another right now during Spring 2013.
I took "Learn to Program: The Fundamentals" from the University of Toronto, which offered a certificate of accomplishment for those achieving a grade of 70 or higher.
I took "An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python" from Rice University, which did not offer a certificate at all.
Currently, I'm taking "Learn to Program: Crafting Quality Code" from the University of Toronto. This is a followup to the first Learn to Program class, with the same instructors, and also offers a certificate of accomplishment for those achieving a grade of 80 or higher.
In all of the classes, there were video lectures with the professors explaining things in a very clear way from start to finish. There were no books required; all the learning was done through video lectures, exercises, and assignments. There were lots of programming tasks to complete, and quizzes to take. The students took to the forums, talked about everything, asked for help, offered help, set up google and facebook study groups, and generally posted a LOT. The forums were constantly buzzing with activity. Since there were SO many people, types of people varied drastically. There were complainers, there were people who kept asking for extensions on dates, there were people who made fun of those people, there were people who helped everyone out, there were people who asked a ton of questions, there were people who answered a ton of questions. There were people who were obviously seasoned programmers, so much that we all wondered why they would take a beginner class. There were people who just didn't understand the material who were struggling along the whole time. There were critics and supporters. People who loved the professors and people who hated them. People who thought the course was too easy and who thought it was too hard. The forums were a great source of information, and entertainment. Socially, it was comfortable and familiar. Especially because a good portion of people were taking both classes at the same time.
In the Rice University course, the team of professors (there were 5, though only 2 main ones) encouraged students to make their own videos explaining the course material for that week and post it to the forums. The student with the videos that were the most popular at the end of the course would win an iPad. I can see that they didn't know quite how popular that contest would be. Lots of students made videos, and a few made videos several times a week for the duration of the 7 week course. In the end, it tied... between a 19 year old girl... and a 12 year old boy. All these adults trying to learn programming... and a 12 year old boy was teaching them how. He was truly an inspiration, even to my kids, who have now taken an interest.
The professors interacted more than I would have expected. In all cases they did have community TAs to help people who needed it. But the profs monitored the forums regularly and commented a LOT. The forums helpfully marked which threads had a professor response included, so that was a nice feature.
Personally, I learned a lot in those classes. I enjoyed programming so much that I decided to enroll in the local community college to pursue a degree in it, purely because I like it and I would love to have those skills. Currently I am enrolled full time in the community college, with mostly online classes, and I'm still taking a MOOC from Coursera because I love it, and because that programming language (Python) is not offered at ACCC.
The online classes I'm taking at an actual college are jolting, coming out of Coursera. The online classes in programming at ACCC are more like self-taught courses. Here's the book, those are your assignments, these are tests and quizzes, here are the due dates for everything, now GO. It's nothing like Coursera. At Coursera, the video lectures and programming assignments are not released all at the beginning; they are slowly released as the course progresses. So, even advanced programmers can't move ahead and finish the course in the first two weeks. They have to stick around with the rest of us and do what we're doing... which is great, because the forums wouldn't work if only the slowest students were there posting and the faster students had already moved on. The faster students are the ones who have the patience and the knowledge to help the rest of us through the problems that we don't understand. At ACCC, you ask a question, and there's no one really checking the forums anymore to even answer.
I realize that online classes will likely never fully replace traditional classrooms. However, the model used at Coursera is very efficient, very conducive to learning, and well liked by many. The do-it-yourself model probably doesn't work well for students who are not self-motivated or who do not learn well by reading a textbook alone.
I don't have full statistics for the courses. At the end of the first Learn To Program class, though, the professors did post a summary, which gives some interesting data. Here it is: