Let’s hear from students around the country and the world about their experiences with free online higher education.

For a Washington Post story about massive open online courses, aka MOOCs, I looked at a class in biostatistics Johns Hopkins University offers on the Web site Coursera, one of several emerging MOOC platforms.

There are about 15,000 people registered for professor Brian Caffo’s public health class. I put a couple queries onto Caffo’s online discussion board and got many e-mail responses. I quoted from three in the story: Mohammad Hijazi, of Beirut; Ephraim Baron, of California; and Patrycja Jabłonska, of Poland.

Here is a sampling of others:

“I learned about Coursera through a former colleague’s Facebook page. He was taking a course and posted it on his FB. I checked out the site, got excited and signed up. Currently I’m taking 5 courses simultaneously and I signed up for several more that will start in the near future. Even though these courses give me no advantage when I’m looking for positions (I’m a HS Math teacher working in international schools) I take them to expand my horizons, so to speak.”-- Denes Tilistyak, 31, born in Hungary, lives in China.


“I’m taking this course specifically because it helps me relate to the design of health care models and large population health care simulations ... This class also helps familiarize me with the mathematical basis and terminology that I hear on a daily basis at work.” — Sean C. Ormbeck, 37, of Daly City, California.

Asked how this learning experience compares with his previous schooling, Ormbeck, who has a master’s degree in computer science, said: “There is less work here to do, since homework and finals are not required, but at the same time, I’m at a maturity level in my schooling that if I don’t do the work myself, I’m only hurting myself.”

“What I like most about this course is that it’s not too easy and it also helped me to refresh all my undergrad knowledge that I almost forgot. It required quite a fair bit of my time though. I spent about 3-4 hours a week watching the video and doing quizzes.”-- Preeyaporn Srasuebkul, 38, born in Thailand, lives in Australia.


“I’m born and raised in the Philippines, and I’m 24 years old. I am currently a medical student at the Philippine General Hospital, training to become a licensed physician, and I plan to take my master’s degree in the field of biostatistics or in epidemiology in the not-so-distant future.”-- Schubert Malbas


“I like the quality of courses here and I enjoy the flexibility it has. You can participate in the classes whenever you like from whenever you are!... The only problem it might have for people who are seeking a certificate is that its certificates might not be accepted by companies and institutes. However apart from this, I would say Coursera graduates are more knowledgeable than the graduates of most universities especially in developing countries.”-- Ali Tamaddoni, 30, born in Tehran, lives in Australia


“I love the fact that I can get access to reputed professors from reputed universities right at my home. I would never spend the thousands of dollars required to enroll in a program at these universities no matter how prestigious they are. The instruction is a bit dry and formal, a bit like grammar rules to be learnt before enjoying a language. But given this particular format and it’s the first time this is being done, I am not complaining.”-- Rajiv Abraham, born in Mumbai, lives in Toronto.


“One major aspect of this learning experience that I prefer over university style learning is that you can watch the videos on your own time, when you feel most mentally ready/on/etc. So I can watch and learn when I decide to and how much I decide to. This is great for someone like me who is most on late in the evening -- not to mention being bound by a full-time job anyway. And there’s a rewind button here :) So I can really personalize the pacing of everything. Another obvious plus: only picking/taking courses you’re interested in. This alone can transform any experience for the better, and so far my personal performance proves it.”--Victoria Vassileva, 23, born in Bulgaria, lives in Texas.


“Most of the courses I’ve seen are great, but I’ve hit a couple that I thought weren’t quite ready for prime time. Now there seems to be a rush for professors to get their classes on board and some are going with a minimum viable product that isn’t much different from a normal classroom lecture experience, which is a shame because the Coursera platform offers a potential for courses to be more engaging. I expect that we’re just seeing a bit of rough edges that’ll be smoothed out as the startup becomes more mature.”--Norman Graham, 51, native of Louisiana


“I’m U.S. born and early 30’s. Right now I’m home with my kids. When they get older I could go back to work; I’m taking Coursera courses to stay sharp and to use my free time better than wasting it doodling around on the Internet. I have a master’s in engineering from an Ivy League school. This learning experience is different than when I went to school because it’s online. Lectures are online videos so you can pause, rewind, and repeat to better absorb the information. And the homework and quizzes are essentially ‘open book’ or should I say ‘open Internet’ so you can run code, look on the discussion forums, and look stuff up from the lectures or from the Internet at large. And homework and quizzes can be re-submitted and they’re multiple choice so you can improve your scores. The knowledge from this class doesn’t have to be memorized, therefore, but you have to know how to access it.” — Margaret Salsbury


“I like the freedom to review the course material all week and take the quiz anytime as long as it is finished by the deadline. It  still takes as much effort as a normal course taken at a university.”-- Jim Collins, 49, of Michigan.

On what he doesn’t like or thinks could be improved: “Even though the professor is accessible through e-mail, it is nice to be able to go to a professor’s office when you have a problem with the homework.” 


“I like the platform. It’s awesome. It’s even better than the one of my University (ITESM, Campus Monterrey). It’s clean and shows the important info at the first glance. ... I like that the videos have subtitles, because it helps me to not be lost in the lecture. I think the evaluation system is good. I’ve checked the forums, but I had not invested time reading everything. I would like [to], because so many people from many countries are there, and it seems like a good opportunity to network. I’ll try to do this on weekends. I don’t like that when you post in a forum, [e-mails] come in when [other] people post also. It’s kind of annoying. About Coursera, I would like more subjects available, but I think it is a matter of time to get this.” - -Alejandro Flores, 20, of Mexico


Lastly, here are edited longer exchanges and responses from Hijazi, Jablonska and Baron. They shed light not only on Coursera but on the huge market that this site, and others, such as edX and Udacity, are seeking to tap.

From Hijazi:

What you like about it so far: I love how simple the platform is and doesn’t require a lot of tech-savviness. Additionally, since the website offers courses from top universities makes it much more appealing to the public. It gives people an idea of what education at top institutions is like. Also, it helps you meet people from all around the world and actually gives meaning to the term “global classroom” where tens of thousands of students from all countries work together and get to know each other.

How you heard about these courses:.. I run an NGO in Lebanon that helps promote proper technology and social media usage and we are very interested in online education and we are trying to promote it as much as possible. Therefore, we are subscribed to google reader feeds on e-learning and the first time I heard about it was on Mashable. I signed up instantly and promoted it heavily through my social networks and urged my friends to sign up and register for courses.I teach several courses, some of them are catered to senior citizens and I am urging them as well to sign up and learn.

What you don’t like... You cannot get actual university credit for your work, but I guess it makes sense since you can attempt quizzes and exams more than once and all written assignments are peer-reviewed.

What benefit there is to you in taking these courses. Probably the biggest benefit is actually learning the material, because contrary to formal universities, no one is forcing you to register for any course. It’s purely optional and opt-in. So, students will actually learn because they are interested in the courses that they register for. Granted, another benefit is that it allows people who cannot afford a top university to get a taste of good education and allows education to flow more smoothly through different layers of society.

How much education you have from formal schools and universities. I have two degrees from the American University of Beirut: Bachelor of Science in Biology and Bachelor of Business Administration in Marketing from the Olayan School of Business, and I am actively seeking a master’s and a PhD.

And how this experience compares to that. Personally, I think I’ve learned more from Coursera than most of my college courses. Many of the courses I enrolled in on Coursera are not offered at my university and probably won’t be for a couple of years from now (examples: Gamification, Sustainability, Securing Digital Democracy, Social Media Analysis) and thus, I am now able to acquire the knowledge and test myself at an earlier time than students in my country.


From Jablonska:

Hello, my name is Patrycja Jabłońska and I am writing to you in response to a post on my Coursera biostatistics course website.

I come from Poland. I was born in Kalisz (it’s a city of about 100,000 citizens) and after graduating from university in Poznań I moved back to my home town where I live from then on. I’m 26 and I have master’s degree in physics. I teach biophysics in local college and work as a private tutor. In the future I would like to get a job in Oncology Centre that is being built in Kalisz and one of the reasons for my taking online courses like this one is to improve my CV [curriculum vitae].

I first learned about Coursera from a newspaper article about it and other platforms alike in polish daily ‘Gazeta Wyborcza.’ It interested me enough to make me check out the website.  I searched the website for courses interesting for me and, among others, I found this one.

I like the course because it is self contained, I don’t have to look for information in books or on the web. It also involves exercise which in my opinion helps a lot in learning. I tried a few courses, but gave up some because they were purely theoretical and I wouldn’t gain any new abilities after finishing them. This one in particular requires a bit of experience in calculus and I like it a lot because it made me refresh some long forgotten info. So to me it requires a bit of effort, but not too much so it’s not discouraging. Still I’m looking forward to every new lecture to find out if I’ll be able to keep up :)

What I like about Coursera is that it gives me an opportunity to learn from the best :) The courses are provided by renowned universities and this allows me to compare my education to [what is] provided by them because some of the courses are online versions of what is actually taught in classrooms. It is pretty comfortable to be able to learn at home and watch the lectures whenever I have time, but since I have a full time job it sometimes is difficult to meet the deadlines. I try to watch all the videos at the beginning of every week and do all the work then but sometimes I don’t have enough time and when I do I’m too tired. That’s actually the case this week when I’m not done with my work yet. Sometimes I think it may be nice for the courses to be self-paced like it is at Udacity, but on the other hand deadlines are pretty motivating to make a little bit more effort when I feel I’m to tired to watch another video or do homework. 

... I do all my coursework in English. I haven’t seen any Polish subtitles for any course. But that’s usually not a problem. Sometimes I like to watch English-subtitled version of lectures when the topic is difficult and I need to be very concentrated.

There is no special time during the day when I do my coursework, because my working hours are not fixed. So what I like about online courses is that I can watch the videos any time I have a spare moment. Sometimes it’s in the morning, before work, then I do some more in the evening and some more on other day. Only for quizzes and homework I try to find some time in the afternoon when I’m free and not too tired to focus on my work. In total I spend on the course about 4 hours every week, but it’s usually split into a few days. 

What’s also great about the courses is that I can watch them on my iPhone. So even when I’m not at home, but have a spare moment I can watch some videos. I haven’t tried attempting quiz or homework on iPhone, though, so I can’t tell how that works. All the “heavy” work I try to do at home on my laptop.


From Baron:

I noted a note in one of the online courses I’m taking (Biostatistics) saying you’re looking for input on Coursera.  I’m a big fan.  Here are my comments, following the rubric provided:

1)How did you first learn about Coursera and about this course?

I learned about Coursera while watching a TED video by a professor talking about the challenges of simultaneously teaching 10,000 students.  (The poetry class I’m also taking has an enrollment of over 30,000!)

I found this course by scanning the Coursera site.

2)What do you like about this course so far? How much effort does it require?

I like the fact that I can take a real course, structured for online delivery and participation, from a top university, all for free.  In addition, I live in California and I’m taking it with my daughter who lives in Oregon.  She’s preparing to apply to grad school for public health, and she many of the programs she’s looking at require knowledge of statistics.  This lets her evaluate and improve her current skill level.  It also lets us work together, which is really cool.

To be honest, the level of effort really depends on how strong a foundation a person has in math.  Since I have an engineering background, it’s a bit easier for me than for my daughter who has more of a humanities background.  But again, that’s the value of a course like this.  She can test her knowledge before enrolling in - and potentially struggling with - a course (that she’d be paying for) as part of a degree program.

3)What do you not like about Coursera and what would you suggest could be improved?

How can I say anything bad about free courses?  Still, it would be nice if it were easier to do more of the coursework offline.  This week I was traveling in Asia, with a couple of long flights on either end.  Although I was able to download the course videos and watch them on the plane, I couldn’t do the homework or take the quizzes.  Also, the .MOV video format is buggy.  It would periodically lock up mid-lecture.

I’m currently taking 3 Coursera classes: Biostats, Intro to Logic, and Modern Poetry.  Of the three, ModPo does the best job of promoting student interaction.  The other two rely almost entirely on the discussion forums, while ModPo has students evaluating other students’ work.

One final thought: people behave differently online.  They tend to be more judgemental and less civil.  So when a person who’s struggling posts to an online forum, there are always a few who are waiting to pounce.  In this class, for example, someone early on said they were having trouble with the math.  They were immediately flamed multiple times.  In a university setting, they’d see the professor or a TA and get help.  That isn’t to say students don’t help each other, but there are far more people online who gleefully criticize.

4)Where were you born? How old are you? Where do you live? What is your occupation and what are your career goals?

I’m US-born, 52 years old, living in Silicon Valley. I used to be an aerospace engineer; now I work in marketing for a computer technology company.  My career goals really don’t play much into the courses I’m taking.  If anything, I see online courses such as those offered by Coursera as an escape from my day job.  [A possible exception is an upcoming course on creativity and innovation that I’ll be taking through Stanford’s Venture Lab.] Rather than career goals, I take these courses to enhance my personal knowledge.

5)What level of formal schooling did you have before you signed up for this class?

> I have a fair amount of formal schooling - a BS from UMass, MS’s from Stanford and San Jose State, and an MBA from San Jose State.  But the thought of going back to a classroom setting at my age doesn’t really appeal to me.  When I was younger, I took courses as part of a degree program.  I considered it a happy bonus of class was cancelled or cut short.  Now I take courses to learn the subject matter.  I feel cheated if a class I’m paying for is cancelled or cut short.  Happily, I don’t have that problem with free, online courses.

6)How does this learning experience compare to what you received in your previous schooling?

The university setting is much more structured.  You go to lecture and take tests according to a proscribed schedule.  Online classes are much looser.  Granted, they’re still formatted by week, but I can participate as my schedule allows.

Also, I’m much freer to experiment.  I can take a course on a whim and drop it if I find I don’t like it or can’t keep up.  There’s no threat of a bad grade dragging down my GPA.  In fact, I really don’t care about my grades at all.  And best of all, there’s no threat that a course will fill up or that I’m taking a slot away from someone else who needs the class to graduate.

On the downside, I have little to no direct interaction with the professor.  This can be problem.  In Biostats, for instance, I wish I could talk with Dr. Caffo directly.  In the online lectures, he breezes through concepts that I sometimes struggle with.  I’m sure if I could stop by his office, he’d be able to help.  Since I can’t, I’m forced to rely on other sources.