In the midst of the recent craze and controversy about free online learning, Jonathan Haber wanted to see things from the learner’s perspective. He undertook a daunting project: earn the equivalent of a four-year philosophy degree* in just a quarter of the time. He documented everything at Degree of Freedom, and recently recapped his experience for Slate magazine.

My Year of MOOCs: Lessons learned from earning the equivalent of a B.A. in 12 months, online.

The full article is worth your time, but I wanted to share some highlights from Haber’s article (block-quote sections below) that I think can speak to the student experience as well as the thinking of our staff.

“To begin with, all the professors I studied with over the last year took their courses and their unseen students seriously, treating us as eager and grown-up learners ready to grapple with complex ideas, often from novel perspectives.”

Our model of self-paced/guided learning makes student enthusiasm and commitment almost a necessity. We want — we need — to improve the interactivity of courses and both build and sustain true communities of learners, but we take for granted that students who stick with us are curious and motivated at a minimum. And although we lay out a path, saying in effect, “do this, then do this, then do this, now take an exam”, we also take for granted that students will want — need — to stray from this prescribed path. If one of our courses meets your educational/professional/personal need and you just want to get it done and walk away with a certificate, we make that pretty easy to do. If you want to go down the rabbit hole, discover new resources, skip this assignment and do that one three times in a row, we make that possible, too.


“[A]ttempts to engage with fellow students via forums or attempted meet-ups generally fell flat (in part because the speed at which I was working left little time for community building).

“That said, I will always remember how a question I posted in the Greek Hero forum regarding the portrayal of Achilles in Troilus and Cressida was answered by a fellow student who knew exactly which classical sources Shakespeare had at hand when he wrote that work. So while online classes do not facilitate the back-and-forth of an undergraduate bull session, they do offer the chance to interact with other students with a wide variety of life and academic experience, some of it quite useful.”

Our self-paced courses sure are convenient, but they are not so good at supporting vibrant discussion forums. Our own discussion forums are hit and miss — popular courses sustain rich dialog, while quieter courses offer students little opportunity for interaction with others; for the truly massive MOOCs, the problem is noise, while for our courses, the problem is chronology and vacancy, or both. Also, without course moderators or TAs, our forums are not great at providing student support; we jump in when we can and a few of our faculty and star students provide outstanding support, but our forums are largely defined by an absence of foundation staff.

The thing is, we hope for our students the pleasure of meeting others who have “a wide variety of life and academic experience”. The other thing is, we simply don’t have the time, although I would spend all day in the forums if I could (the very best part of my job is talking with our students).

We have to do better, not by working harder, but by working smarter. I have heard very good ideas from students on how we can more effectively support and strengthen community in the forums (expect more on that in coming weeks).

What is success?

“[A]s data that became available during my year of online learning and research demonstrated, the numbers we have been using to evaluate the success or failure of MOOCs (including huge enrollments and high dropout percentages) are shallow at best, misleading at worst. For students hitting the Enroll button on the Coursera or edX website do so with different goals in mind—ranging from simply wanting to browse a syllabus, to auditing, to earning a certificate.”

We get messages every day expressing thanks for providing free courses on a variety of subjects, and we immensely appreciate hearing positive reports from people. Visitors come to for a lot of reasons. Some really are just visiting, perhaps reading an article or watching a video, for fun or for school, that they found from a regular web search. Some come as students, intending to complete from one to literally dozens of courses. As with the MOOCs, a relative few have actually “completed” a course to earn a certificate, which is admirable when one considers that many of courses take well over a hundred hours — that’s two and a half weeks of full-time employment — to complete.

What are our students getting from us? What are we really giving back? As a nonprofit organization, that’s a really serious question for us. Heck, it’s the only serious question for us (okay, that and paying for it all…two serious questions). For years, our model has been to discover, vet, organize, and present free learning materials, providing sufficient structure (learning outcomes, final exams, certificates) that a school or an employer or the student him/herself can take the work seriously. And that’s good, but it can be awfully difficult to measure real impact.

We need to do more for our students, which is what 2014 is going to be all about. The work we have done to date is effectively permanent; links may go down from time to time, but the planning and structure of all the courses is openly licensed and can exist practically forever on our site or on any other. To give back to our students, to advance as a nonprofit education provider, we will be driving hard toward building partnerships, extending affordable credit opportunities, expanding and supporting credentialing systems, and ultimately making sure that our students know what they are getting from their investment of time and energy and community.

Other measures of success

“[M]y One Year BA…was meant to create the type of transformative educational experience one receives at the undergraduate level, one that leaves you a different person at the end of it than you were when you started. With that in mind, is it outlandish to consider me the equivalent of a graduating senior with a B.A. in philosophy?

“As Socrates, one of my guides over the last year, put it, “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” And in a world where traditional education is costing ever more, and seems often to seek to fill rather than kindle, the free-learning bounty growing and improving online might yet prove a valuable resource to turn young people into passionate independent learners.”

Frankly, this is tough for us. Most of our staff (and I do not include here our many wonderful faculty consultants) have been teachers or one kind or another at some point or another; many of us still are educators. We want to kindle a passion for learning but we also want to “fill”. Many of our students come to out of curiosity and a pure love for learning, but a great many others need more than personal fulfillment — they need a job, a promotion, a boost toward a degree, or an alternative to a degree. We want to provide for those needs, while making the student experience as effective and efficient as possible.

I do not believe that kindle/fill needs to be an either/or proposition. For one thing, while we provide the experience and some of the tools, our students will always succeed best when they bring their own curiosity, motivation, and passion to their work. At the Saylor Foundation, we do not fill up vessels; we provide a well and invite all comers to fill their buckets. Moreover, anyone who taken a few of our courses has learned something of time management, organization, and evaluation of materials. That person has become a better learner.

I thrill at the idea that a student in our community should be or become a passionate, independent learner. That is an immense accomplishment, if exceedingly difficult to measure. But I am also excited by the student who takes our macroeconomics course to clear a hurdle into a Ph.D. program; or the student who is learning biology and chemistry toward starting a fermentation science certificate; or the student who is picking up computer science so that he will be as able in the second half of his professional career as in the first half; or the student who is getting a traditional degree on her terms, at her pace, and for less cost.

So much of driving toward the life you want is about becoming an independent learner that we are more than happy to provide the well and the buckets and help people carry them home for as long as people want the water and know what to do with it. This we believe unequivocally: nobody should have to postpone their dreams simply because they cannot access an education.

*Haber took our PHIL304: Existentialism class and reviewed it here. [back to article]

Photo credit: Herkie via photopin CC BY-SA 2.0 | This post CC BY-SA 2.0

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on the one-year bachelors degree, MOOCs, success, community, and nonprofit education

  1. This is an excellent article, Sean. Particularly because it is candid. You posted an honest assessment of Saylor’s strengths and weaknesses, and as a student it is much appreciated. I personally love the curation of the content. I often find myself googling and youtubing topics that I want to learn more about, and the repetition/reinforcement of concepts is worth the extra learning time.

    For example. on the Financial Accounting course that I’m taking (BUS103), the 4 financial statements are repeated over and over again in the curriculum, to make sure that you solidify the concept in your mind from various sources/perspectives. It’s beautiful. The textbook says it once, then someone else talks about it in a youtube video, then you get a few online articles about the same exact concept. Some may think it’s overkill, but I think it’s excellent learning.

    I feel that there should be more problem sets, but I may get my wish as I progress in the Financial Accounting course. As for Macroeconomics, I’m taking the Excelsior-102 Exam Prep course, and I’m enjoying it so far. I particularly like how there is a Saylor Assessment + Answer Key at the end of the Unit. I really like taking a test at the end of a Unit to gauge my progress, and see where I stand.

    To Love and Learning,
    Josh Lipovetsky

    1. Really good to know, Josh, and your input is appreciated as always. We definitely know that the lack of regular, small assessments in many courses is a weakness. The wheels on prioritizing and creating those can move really slowly, but they are in motion.

      I’ll pass all your feedback along to the ed team!

  2. A very interesting post, yours and Jonathan’s. I’m spreading the idea of online learning with everybody: family, friends, colleagues, and even in my recent job interviews I’m trying to explain how it works and why they must consider it as a good integration or alternative.
    Surely an efficient and valuable self-paced learning is not for everyone: you need to be self-confident, organized, perseverant and, more important, very curious. Curiosity and love for what you’re studying are the basics of every successful learning journey, and this is more true if you’re trying to succeed in your free online education.

    1. It’s not for everyone, indeed. I agree that curiosity is key, even more so than love for the subject — an open, curious mind can lead to the pleasant circumstance in which a topic you thought you would find boring turns out to be fascinating.

  3. The lack of a sense of connection with other users is not a short coming of Saylor, but a pitfall that will probably always be part of online learning. Quite simply, non-traditional students often just don’t have the time to chat. I am almost at the end of my second course at Saylor. This has to be balanced with many other responsibilities (family, full time job, etc) I can tell you that in order to get this far, 99.9% of my time spent on Saylor has to be spent working and not chatting. I have had time to reach out to others in the same community on only a few occasions.

    1. That’s a good point, John, and my own experiences in formal an informal, Saylor and non-Saylor online learning reflect some of that. I personally enjoy being able to engage with others, especially by getting and giving help, but oftentimes the “getting help” part comes by doing a web search to discover someone else who had a similar problem that got solved.

  4. Those of us who start (and complete) a course online tend to be able to work independently of others and have a high degree of self motivation, I would not be surprised to find many in the types of roles where autonomy was a major facet of their work. I for one enjoy being able to concentrate in peace and silence without distractions. I can focus my efforts and be highly productive in that time. I also absorb more in that environment. However in saying that in order for me to retain and absorb the maximum from my learning, it does need to be more dynamic, by which I mean more interactive (i.e. a combination of reading, video and audio) which I think could be more developed by the Saylor Foundation, there are a series of short courses through Australia’s OPEN2STUDY section of the AUSTRALIAN OPEN UNIVERSITY available here via this link: which although quiet basic are quiet dynamic and fun to take, this type of visual aid might assist in adding to the dynamic of courses. Saying that I still enjoy my courses and as with John am on track to complete my second Subject very shortly and already planning for my next. Thanks for the opportunity all of you at Saylor, and best wishes to all my fellow students, I wish you all the best with your chosen paths. Regards, Gregorioi

    1. Thanks, Greg! I will share your comment with our education team, too; I’m quite sure they will agree with your points, but it is always good to hear someone from outside our offices say it.

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