edX 6.00x – time for the final exam, but will MOOCs be bad for social mobility?

There’s just a day or so to go before the edX 6.00x final exam is opened up. There’s a 12 hour window to complete it in and the course team estimate that it will take around 4 hours of effort. I’m hoping to find some time to have a go at it over the weekend, but given the problems the course has suffered since the second midterm exam and that my grade is already a passing one, I can’t say that I’m all that enthusiastic about the prospect at the moment.

It’s not that the material presented has been bad. Quite the opposite – it’s certainly up to the standard of the ‘High Level Programming A and B’ courses I took at Warwick University many years ago as part of my computer science degree. With the possible exception of the course needing to devote a little more time to object orientation than the rather mad single week brain dump it tried to cover it in, it’s been well paced too.

The biggest problem has been the lack of leadership shown when things started to go seriously wrong with the schedule around 2/3rds of the way in. With hindsight, I fear that my “MOOC that failed to scale” rant in mid December was rather too accurate in its diagnosis of the key challenges facing edX if they really do want to be part of “the biggest single change to education since the printing press”.

Even before illness and personal tragedy had struck the (single?) member of staff attempting valiantly to keep the show on the road, key learning tools (finger exercises in the course jargon) had started to be omitted, problem sets were being issued late and incomplete, and a decision had been taken to cancel one of the 11 graded problem sets originally scheduled. In the event, another graded problem set was also dropped at the start of this year (on graph traversal problems – but it was quite good fun to do the ungraded version provided!) Even the graded problem set 9 which was eventually issued was rather perfunctory, bearing no relationship to the material the course had moved onto. Finally and belatedly, some real leadership was shown by the edX management and a fulsome and welcome apology was issued to participants.

For my own selfish reasons as a lifelong learner, I want initiatives like edX to be successful and useful. I’m taking courses such as those offered by edX purely for “personal development reasons”. As such, they are highly unlikely to benefit my future career success one way or the other. Free of charge is therefore definitely a good model for me!

However, I’m concerned that the hype surrounding MOOCs potentially threatens the diversity of provision in higher education for those that really need it. If governments around the world start to believe that more traditional HE institutions are not required (and I’m including established distance learning providers like the Open University in this bracket), we run the risk of narrowing not only the subjects on offer to our young people, but restricting academic freedom and innovation by concentrating power and resources in ever fewer, richer and distant institutions. Such a move would result in increasingly expensive in-person tuition for the few who can afford it, with a restricted online offer for those who are unable to pay – or unwilling to mortgage their futures.

Paradoxically therefore, I believe that the unintended consequence of the proliferation of MOOCs could be to reduce access to the kind of higher educational qualifications which can genuinely act as an enabler of social mobility.


  • Susan

    While I certainly join in your frustration over 6.00x this term, since it seems that content providers could/should have these videos & exercises ‘in the can’ from previous terms. The flexibility of online courses goes BOTH ways. Students should have access to nearly all the materials (except exams) from the start of the course — so that they can work in a self-paced way that many non-traditional students want. Teachers and other staff should only be left to respond to technical issues and email/grading throughout the term.

    What you appear to be saying is that ‘in-person’ traditional classes offer higher quality learning, and to that I have to say ‘have YOU taken an in-person class lately?’

    I am a full-time tutor of students of all ages and I can tell you that the quality of in-person on-campus college classes is often considerably less than I’ve experienced in 6.00x this term (and I am including the drop off due to holidays & illnesses). I have students from well-known colleges who struggle as they go to class to watch a ‘professor’ click through a PowerPoint presentation — as if that is teaching. There is very little feedback and most of it is way too late to be helpful to students.

    I have no problem with colleges expecting students to go an figure things out themselves, but then there MUST be some EFFECTIVE way to get help. Whether it be through timely and copious feedback on assignments or through having the professor, qualified tutors & TAs who actually understand the topic available — and by available I mean actually able to be contacted and met with — not just 1 or 2 scheduled ‘office hours’ a week for your 100+ students to try to get to you. What exactly students are paying for is a mystery. The successful students take courses in subjects that they already know so that they can do well without any effort on their part or interaction from the staff. Is this what ‘higher learning’ is meant to be.

    I favor these free online course providers since they encourage people who WANT TO LEARN – rather than just those who seek a piece of paper that is becoming more useless everyday. The lack of any standard requirements across institutions for even the most basic courses like college Algebra has reduced the meaning of ALL degrees — since employers cannot trust that a degree from one accredited college is at all equivalent to one from another. A good example would be to go and sit-in a few classes of just one subject (let’s say Statistics). Now you must go sit-in on every different professor teaching that same numbered class for this term. Notice a difference? Odd how Stats 101 gets ‘dumbed down’ for some groups over others, yet those students get a grade and evidence on their records of having passed the SAME course.

    • tim

      Hi Susan,

      Thanks for your comments.

      As I’m currently sat here on Saturday evening (UK time) watching the final exam graders for the coding questions spin around forever (and with a less than helpful response from the course team about what to do), I’m perhaps not in the best state of mind to respond at the moment. But I will do, once the course has finally finished as I have some sympathy with some of the points you make.


  • Hi, I tend to agree with your opinion that things could have been a bit smoother with the course. However it was clear to me from the very beginning that we are the guinea pigs and, maybe, one of the reasons the certificates are for free, just to make sure you attract enough interest and people to qualify for the M in MOOC while at the same time not having to deal with people who have paid a fee and expect a certain quality in course delivery. In any case, and as a precaution, I have always taken the exams towards the end of the available period, hoping issues would have been ironed out in the first couple of days. Similarly to you, I have already passed before taking the final exam.Although finger exercises actually help, students must also realize that it is up to them to look for programming tasks where they can put in practice what we have learned. One of the reasons I have done well in the exams is that I did not only rely on the finder exercises for programming practice.

    I have thoroughly enjoyed the course and, time permitting, it will not be the last MOOC I take (from edX or elsewhere) as, whichever way you look at it, the quality/price ratio is unbeatable (at least as of today). But at the same time, MOOC can not fully replace the learning environment of a traditional university. In that sense, I do not share your fears. I believe MOOC is a complement to the existing offer. However, I can imagine many open universities around the world taking good note of current offerings and working on how to adapt to the new reality, possibly adapting many of their courses.

    Greetings from somebody who used to live in Derby.

Your thoughts?