Top 10 Misconceptions About MOOCs -- Free Online University Courses

I'm the professor, and my virtual classroom has more than 40,000 students enrolled.
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It's not going to be your average first day of school.

Northwestern University's Medill School is launching its first "massively open online course" next week, called "Understanding Media by Understanding Google."

I'm the professor, and my virtual classroom has more than 40,000 students enrolled. That would be approximately 1,000 times more than would be sitting in the "on-premises" undergraduate course I used as a springboard for this curriculum.

The rapidly expanding universe of colleges and universities offering these online courses includes Princeton, Stanford, Yale, MIT, The Ohio State, University of Pennsylvania, UCLA and hundreds more around the globe. Northwestern has other courses launching as well, reaching close to 70,000 students around the globe. The concept has its champions and detractors while many are watching closely to see what transpires in this educational experiment.

Part of my getting ready to teach MOOCs, not surprisingly, was reading widely about the format (as well as enrolling in one as a student). What I discovered in the process is that misconceptions abound in academia and the real world about the nature of these courses. So here is my list of the top 10 -- at least before class starts.

10. It's completely different than creating a course for the classroom.

9. It's pretty much the same as creating a course for the classroom.
Both are misguided. What's not different: Selecting (then winnowing) strong source materials; sketching out (then refining) new ways to communicate a topic; and envisioning (then codifying) assignments that will fairly assess whether (then how much) the students are learning. What's not the same: The need to eliminate all ambiguity in instructions, given the lack of face-to-face clarification. There is also the need to decide three months ahead of time what will be in the final lecture, given the production constraints; and there is the need to try to avoid overly idiomatic English phrasemaking, given the worldwide audience of non-native speakers.

8. I've never done anything like this before.
Ah, but I have, and so has anyone who has ever been a journalist. In the "old days"(before the Web), all we did was work to engage and inform huge numbers of people whom we would never meet with stories we thought would be relevant to them. In the case of a Sunday Page 1 story in a major metropolitan newspaper, in fact, it would be millions of people -- making 40,000 seem not so intimidating after all.

7. All I need is a Webcam and I'm on Easy Street.
Once I realized that, when the little light came on, I'd have to be "tight and bright,"(to use another phrase from my newspapering past) such an idea was easily dismissed. So, using a script-writing tool called Celtx, I wrote out every lecture and every stage direction and every prompt. (And then I realized how hard those TV newsreaders have to work to get every inflection right when all that's on the prompter is just the next few words.)

6. The students are just bargain-hunting, not looking to learn.
With a price point of zero, perhaps it is not an unreasonable initial assumption. But as long ago as 2007, Chris Anderson of Wired magazine argued that, along with the traditional scarcities of time and money, attention and reputation were now in short supply -- "new scarcities" in his "taxonomy of free." If so, any student choosing to allocate both time and attention to Course G ... among the hundreds available... seems likely to be motivated to get something out of those investments. Besides, if it were just about the thrill of a bargain, why wouldn't enrollments be closer to 4.6 million (the number of people with Coursera accounts) than to 46,000?

5. The students are just going to lurk.
Had I thought so, my mind would have changed in a single afternoon this week, when I opened up a "community" for them on Google+ and saw it begin to populate within minutes. Enrollees were trading LinkedIn accounts, Twitter handles, and blog URLs, looking for "study buddies," and engaging with one another at the speed of, well, social media. My own Twitter feed instantly filled up and my Facebook followers doubled, then tripled.

4. The students have nothing at stake.
See item 6, and also see my recent blog post on a pre-course survey of students. Over the last few months, the percentage of survey-takers saying that they want to "earn a credential for my CV or résumé" has approached 50 percent.

3. The professor has nothing at stake.
Also see item 6. If reputation is also in short supply these days, there's quite a bit on the line in an endeavor like this.

2. The assignments can't be "real" homework.
Actually, thanks to the "peer-grading" tools used by Coursera, students are going to do many of the same rigorous assignments that my on-campus students did. It was extremely interesting to create grading rubrics that will help students do a fair and thorough job of evaluating each other.

1. This can't be as fun as an actual class.
So far, so good. Let's see what the next six weeks bring.

Owen Youngman holds the Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications a former Chicago Tribune editor and executive. You can still enroll in this class at

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