Is it time for Jewish MOOCs?

I have been thinking a lot about MOOCs. For those who have been living in a hole these past 2+ years and don't know what MOOCs are, here is a definition. A MOOC is short for massive open online course and is defined as:
a course of study made available over the Internet without charge to a very large number of people.
MOOCs began in the fall of 2011 when Sebastian Thrun launched a fully online free version of his course Introduction to Artificial Intelligence which quickly gained an enrollment of over 160,000 students. Soon Dr. Thrun left Stanford to found an online MOOC platform, Udacity, and another more open platform for MOOCs Coursera began as well. Then schools like MIT, Harvard, Berkley, and the University of Texas combined to create their own MOOC platform, edX.

What made these courses fundamentally different from previous online courses was that they were free and, unlike platforms like MIT's Open Courseware which merely shared materials from courses given in University for one to "audit" online, these MOOCs were transformed for the online space for students to actively engage with the material and ultimately complete the course with a grade and certificate.

Some of the distinctive features of the courses were that they divided up the learning into bite-size chunks of 7-12 minute videos immediately followed by short quizzes with immediate feedback, featured discussion forums to foster interaction between students, and often contained more sophisticated assessments which depended on crowd-sourced grading where fellow students graded the exercises, since a professor or even a series of teaching assistants could not possibly grade tens of thousands of responses. The courses encouraged the peer grading model by using a system where one could only receive a grade on her own assignment after grading 5 assignments.

The hype was tremendous. The New York Times declared 2012 to be the Year of the MOOC and some state run schools including the California University system decided to cut costs by transferring introductory courses to MOOCs which their students would take for credit. This led to a debate on the value of outsourcing some of the direct instruction to these less expensive but less personal online platforms; a debate very similar to the debate about blended learning and affordability in Jewish education, something that I tweeted about at the time.

Ultimately, the MOOC experiment in for-credit college courses was an unmitigated disaster with online pass rates much lower than their on-campus equivalents and schools like San Jose State scaling back or pulling out of their MOOC contracts.

The reason for this is that the MOOC was never designed to be a replacement for face-to-face courses in colleges and other places of higher learning. MOOCs have a very low cost of entry which leads to a high dropout rate. They also do not provide the direct interaction with professors (and nagging reminders about upcoming assignments and assessments) that the average student needs to keep up with her school work and succeed academically. However, even though the MOOC model might have been determined to be only ideal for the top 5% of the student body who are self starters, that is still a lot of students and MOOCs remain a fascinating model nevertheless. It provides genuine, advanced education for those who might no longer be in the world of the university and could not otherwise devote the time and expense to advance their knowledge further.

This past summer, I dabbled in MOOCs myself both to further my knowledge about MOOCs and for my own personal professional development. Two years ago, I signed up for the first Udacity course on Computer Science 101: Building a Search Engine and quickly dropped out when the course-work got too difficult for me to keep up with during the school year. I felt that July and August when my schedule was much lighter would be an ideal time for me to devote some serious time to this online platform. My blogging definitely suffered while I was enrolled in my MOOCs but I gained new horizons in my online courses.

I signed up for 3 courses, a one week course from the Buck Institute for Education on How to Design a Driving Question, and two six week courses from Stanford on Nano-manufacturing and Computer Science 101. The Driving Question course used Edmodo, a platform which I am very familiar with but which I find to be limiting at times. The two Stanford courses used the edX platform.

I found all three courses to be exhilarating. The Driving Question course was highly social. This was partially because of the Edmodo platform with its Facebook-like interface which lends itself to much interaction but also due to the fact that everyone enrolled in the course were like-minded teachers sharing very similar experiences in the classroom. The instructor designed the course to maximize interaction with a great deal of online discussion and a requirement for all final assignments to be peer reviewed by another student in the class. The fast pace of the course, with daily assignments and discussions all in a one-week span, also lent a more immediate flavor to the conversation. Even though the instructor divided the hundreds of participants into smaller manageable groups, I still met a number of people who I knew from the world of Jewish education in the course.

The two Stanford courses were of a decidedly different flavor. The Computer Science course was informative but relatively easy. I knew some of the material already and other units were presented so simply and clearly that it was easy to master what was taught. The one thing missing from this course was interaction with peers. The course was a series of video tutorials followed by quizzes with no final project or alternative method of assessment. Forums were included but I had no need to participate in them so it felt very much like a correspondence course.

Ironically, nano-manufacturing which was the most esoteric and highly specialized course that I enrolled in with its focus on LCD and LED displays, Moore's Law and old and new technologies used to produce various types micro-processors including those for the computer's central processing unit or cpu and for flash memory storage, was the course in which my interaction with peers was the most valuable. I have no engineering background and did not really even understand what a transistor was before I took this course. (If you want to quickly get up to speed, here is an excellent video on how a transistor works.)

I was way out of my league in this course. But I was determined to succeed both because I wanted to finish the course and because I felt it would give me a firmer grasp of the hardware in devices that I use on a daily basis like iPads and smartphones- it did. So I watched and rewatched the course videos, I participated in the forums where I discovered that most of my "classmates" from all over the world were engineering students who freely shared their knowledge and expertise, and I reached out to the teaching assistant who amazingly provided personalized feedback despite the fact that there were probably 10,000+ people taking the course. By the end of the course, I passed (HOORAY), learned a great deal, and am especially proud of the video that I produced for my final project in which I performed a tear-down of a first generation iPod Touch.

You can watch the video below. (Caution: A real iPod Touch was harmed in the making of this film.)



Since the summer, I have enrolled in another edX MOOC, this one from MIT on The Design and Development of Educational Technology. I have less time to devote to this course as it is during the school year so I am taking more of an auditing approach to the course, watching the videos on my own pace, and doing only some of the assignments.

Why are my experiences with MOOCs relevant for a blog on the intersection of technology and Jewish education?

I believe that the MOOC model could be a powerful one for Jewish education.


Currently, there are many opportunities for high level Jewish learning online for free. There is the Gush Virtual Beit Midrash with its text-based shiurim and Yeshiva University's YUTorah online with its mostly audio shiurum, which is a major part of my morning commute as I listen in the car. There are even real-time video shiurim like WebYeshiva's subscription based courses.

However, I cannot think of anything like the MOOC model in online Jewish education. These would be asynchronous courses where people can watch, listen, or read the Torah content on their own schedule, embedded into a synchronous course with real-time quizzes as a check for understanding, a weekly curriculum for information covered, interaction with classmates in online forums, and substantive peer-reviewed projects.

The closest I can think of to the MOOC model in Jewish education is actually from decades ago; the classic Gilyonot that Nechama Leibowitz sent out by snail mail and graded on a weekly basis. These combined a weekly curriculum, Nechama's source-sheet on the Parshat Hashavua, with almost real-time hand written feedback which Nechama gave to anyone who mailed them back to her with their answers.

Although, as I mentioned above, the MOOC is not the panacea for the world of education and certainly would only work with a subset of students, I believe it is time for someone to adapt this model to Jewish education. We already have a world-wide Jewish curriculum with Parshat Hashavua, Daf Yomi, Nach Yomi and the like. Isn't it time to combine all of the elements of the MOOC, the small bite-sized lectures, the real-time self check quizzes, the online community of learners, and the peer reviewed higher level assignments to Jewish education?

I think there are a number of platforms currently in development to support this model for Jewish education. The Mercava is well into the development of its next generation app which will support audio and video shiurim, real-time assessment, and interaction with peers throughout the world while staying on "the daf", the traditional page of Jewish text. Gemara Berura has also created a compelling skills based web app together with a learning management system. Perhaps the institutions of higher Jewish learning could get together to design MOOC-like courses modeled after the consortium of MIT, Harvard, and others that created the edX platform.

It is time for the Jewish MOOC. It might not transform the world of Jewish education for everyone, but it would provide more options for anyone, anywhere with a passion to learn more about their Judaism and a computer or mobile device to dive into the sea of high-level, interactive Jewish learning.