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Communications of the ACM


Reflections on Stanford's MOOCs

laptop displays Stanford Engineering Everywhere Web site

The Stanford Engineering Everywhere Web site ( was launched in 2008.

New possibilities in online education create new challenges.

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Grigory Sapunov

Thanks for the article.

It is interesting that the first third of challenges is actually not about gained knowledge, but about external validation. From my point of view there are so many people coming into MOOC just to get knowledge but not verified certificates, so knowledge-related issues must be at first place.

Topic about hybrid education adds nothing new from my point of view. It's not different with reading suggested book chapters before lection, just using another (yet somehow richer) media.

From knowledge point of view there are some other significant challenges:

1. No one MOOC platform yet provides a complete learning path for specific domain. You have good, very good and even state-of-the-art courses, but you cannon assemble a complete education program from them. And no one can advise you in this business. First, you do not have proper tool to make your own path. Second, you have no enough courses (see next).

2. There are abundance of entry-level courses, but a lack of deep ones. So you can start but then you have nowhere to go. For example, on Coursera you can take basic econometric course, but you cannot take deeper courses, they exist only in university. Same for machine learning and data analysis there are several entry courses (like Andrew Ng's one), but too few advanced (can remember only Geoffrey Hinton's one on Neural Networks). It's a problem.

3. Courses (at Coursera/Udacity) are limited in time with the longest usually lasts approx. 12 weeks. While it's enough time to provide a lot of material, it's too few time to do any meaningful practice and graduate work. At best you'll have a final exam, but it's not enough. It would be better to try gained knowledge on near real-life tasks and provide a second assessment, say 3-6 months later, based on student's project, say on Github. Yes, it's a talk about richer evaluation.

4. Online courses (Coursera/Udacity) provides too few possibilities for a group work. Venture Lab seems to be better at this place. Group work adds another dimension to online learning and reduces the gap between online and university on-site education.

5. MOOCs still cannot replace learning bound to phisical reality, i.e. those when you have to use solderer and oscilloscope on your own. Or when you have to program PIC. This problem can be solved using special toolboxes, better thought-out evaluation, and maybe integration with FabLabs or other DIY facilities. But it's still a problem.

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