Free online course suits Kenyan student just fine

Saturday March 22 2014

By George Ogutu

It’s a normal class – with lectures and quizzes - only that it’s online and it’s free. I am a student at one of the Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), coursera.org.

It is a collaboration between 617 global partners and 10 US state institutions such as Columbia University, Yale University, Stanford University, State University of New York and University of Kentucky.

The courses/units offered range from arts, biology, chemistry and software engineering to law, humanities, music and social sciences. The courses run for between four and over 14 weeks.

I “attend” a class taught by Prof Jeffrey Sachs of the Columbia University on Sustainable Development. In my class, there is one other Kenyan — but we haven’t met face to face. It is a 14-week course.

I took the online class for a number of reasons: One, I plan to take an online post-graduate course and wanted to get the feel of it. Two, I have read a lot from Prof Sachs. Three, I have access to the Internet. Four, I get to attend class at my convenience.

By convenience, I mean that I don’t worry about missing class, which is a series of five 20-minute video clips per week. In the video clip is the lecturer, as he would appear in a normal class, with all manner of charts on the topic. In every clip, just to make sure you are following, there is a pause where you answer a question before you proceed – there is also the option of ignoring the question!

All the course materials – syllabus, videos, quizzes and reading materials — are posted on the course page every week. It is up to me to watch the videos, go through the recommended reading material (could be as many as 150 pages a week) and make notes.

We also have a discussion forum where we do a question-and-answer on whatever topic we are covering for that week. What is more, there is a weekly one-hour Google hangout in which Prof Sachs responds to our questions.

We have a quiz at the end of each unit, with a deadline past which you can’t do the quiz and get marks. Before you post your answers, you must tick a box to show you agree to the course’s code of honour – that all the answers are your own. You can attempt the quiz as many times as you want – just to get 10/10.

After every quiz, a pie chart of how we have performed is posted on our individual pages.

It feels like I’m attending Columbia University, for a course for free! (No air ticket, no visa fees, no filling in of lengthy forms, no accommodation costs...)

All one has to do is choose a course that interests them, confirm that they have the required background (some courses require a certain level of mathematics), and enrol.

The best part about MOOC is that you can take just one unit and not the entire degree course. For example, to study Sustainable Development, I may have been required to enrol for a Bachelor of Arts in Development Studies at a regular university. Coursera offers me just the units I want.