What is a MOOC, mechanical or otherwise?

What is a “MOOC”?
A massive open online course. They’re the latest rage in online learning. OK, they’ve actually been around a while in a variety of different forms, the first of which was a free-for-all approach with little central control where learners co-create a learning experience (“cMOOCs”), and the more recent variety, which are much more like traditional online classes (“xMOOCs”). You can read more about them at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massive_open_online_course

In both cases, lots and lots of people get together to learn online. These courses are scalable because of peer learning environments that allow the learners to support each other, and because of assessment engines that automate feedback. Typically, participants number on the thousands, though some recent examples have included more than 100,000 initial participants.

OK, what is a “mechanical” MOOC?
Well, with previous MOOCs, there’s still been a professor who offers the course. Our course has no instructor. Our theory is that online learning tools have become robust enough with a light amount of coordination, learners can move through them together and support each other’s learning without a central authority

We use a mailing list to coordinate learner activities across a selection of online tools, letting you know when class activities are taking place and where to go to participate.

Why would you create a Mechanical MOOC?
We have a theory about MOOCs as they exist today. The first version of MOOCs–the cMOOCs–we think, are a little too unstructured for many learners, casting them into an unbounded environment of blogs, wikis, RSS feeds and other web technologies that are more than many learners can or want to manage.

On the other hand, the new strain of MOOCs–the xMOOCs–offered out of major universities and their spinoffs seem to be all competing to create the killer platform, and we have doubts that this can—or should–be done successfully. Usually, when sites try to do it all, they end up doing not much of it very well.

The lesson of open education in the past 10 years seems to be that the components of education—content, community and assessment—can be unbundled, and that sites can focus on providing one aspect of education very well. So we are combining three “best-of-breed” sites for an offering that we think is as good or better than other approaches.

Is this course competing with the Stanford’s and MIT’s of the world?
No, this is an experiment to test our theory about the current MOOCs. It is a very different learning experience than either the cMOOCs or xMOOCs. It is more structured that the former and less structured than the latter.

It is not a neat and polished environment where all the pieces are custom-created to fit together neatly. But on the other hand, we bring together the best of what’s already out there without having to build anything from scratch–a significant cost advantage, and a model that will empower many more open education projects to experiment with MOOC-like offerings.

What can I learn?

What course are you offering?
The course is called “A Gentle Introduction to Python” and will be, well, a gentle introduction to Python programming.

What version of Python is it?
The course uses Python 2.6, and the Codecademy exercises are written to 2.7. The differences won’t make much difference in the context of the class.

Who is offering the Mechanical MOOC?

Who is offering the class?
A group of leading open education sites are involved, including Peer 2 Peer University, OpenStudy, Codecademy, and MIT OpenCourseWare. Peer 2 Peer University is managing the mailing list.

MIT is participating. Is this an MITx offering? A competing program?
Neither. MIT OpenCourseWare supports all experiments involving their content that are consistent with the mission and spirit of the program, and this is one of them. We all have a lot to learn about how open learning takes place, and the more data points the better. This MOOC will not offer an MITx certificate.

How does it work?

How big will this Mechanical MOOC be?
We don’t know, but we’re confident it can be very big. These sites already serve thousands and in some cases millions of users, so we can handle whatever may come. But we’re ok if it’s small also. Our concern is less about getting huge numbers in the front end, and more about delivering a good learning experience for everyone who participates.

Where do I sign up?
Sign up for the mailing list at http://mechanicalmooc.org/. You’ll also have to register eventually for the OpenStudy site and Codecademy, but this can be done as the course progresses, so no worries.

When does it start?
The next offering of the course will start June 17th, 2013, with a series of “getting ready” e-mails preceding the start to introduce the materials and share how the course will work. On June 17th, e-mails will begin pointing participants to specific content to read or watch, and specific exercises to complete.

What textbook will we use? Do I need to buy it?
We use Alan Downey’s wonderful book, How to Think Like a Computer Scientist. While you can purchase the book at the link above, you can also access a free downloadable PDF version and an HTML version you can read on line. Both free versions are also available through the 6.189 A Gentle Introduction to Python course materials on MIT OpenCourseWare.

How do I submit assignments and receive feedback?
The Mechanical MOOC will not grade homework. In most cases you can check your own work using the Python interpreter. If you get stuck or can’t come up with a correct answer, ask for help on OpenStudy or from your e-mail group. Remember, the goal here is to become a great programmer, not to submit a bunch of correct answers.

Can I work ahead?
Absolutely. The Mechanical MOOC is a guide, not a dictator. Feel free to forge ahead, and please if you do lend assistance to those who are still working on concepts you’ve mastered. You can access the course assignment sequence at the “Sequence” link above.

What if I fall behind?
Don’t panic. Everyone learns at different speeds, and everyone has different obligations in life. Our goal is to help you finish the materials whenever you are able. The e-mails are always archived on this blog, so you’ll have access to the full sequence.

We also plan to restart a new round of mailings whenever we collect enough new participants, so if you get significantly behind the first group, you can always fall back to the second. We’ll keep running groups as long as we have interest.

How do I unenroll?
Well, we hope you won’t. As we explain above the email cycle is mostly to keep everyone learning together and moving though the material. Otherwise, you are free to move at your own pace, so don’t worry if you are moving slower that others. But if you decide you just aren’t able to do it right now, simply unsubscribe from the email list using the link at the bottom of any email. You can always sign up again in a later cycle.

How can I get to know others who are studying?
OpenStudy will provide a forum where all learners can interact in one big study group, so that’s a great place to start. We’re also offering the opportunity for learners to be assigned to groups of ten, so that you can work more closely with a more limited cohort.

Can I use other sites and services with this course?
Absolutely. We encourage participants to bring in other tools, self-organize, and share what they are doing with the rest of the community. We’re tyring to learn here as well.

Where can I get help?

Where can I get answers to logistical questions?
Well, here, for one. But also look for MOOC-E on OpenStudy and Twitter (@MOOC_E). You can also email logistical questions to the Mechanical MOOC at mooc-e@p2pu.org.

What if I am having technical problems with P2PU’s e-mail scheduler, Codecademy, OpenStudy or MIT OpenCourseWare?
Provide feedback to those sites directly, using whatever option they provide.

  • E-mail P2PU about e-mail scheduler issues at mooc-e@p2pu.org.
  • For MIT OpenCourseWare, this is the feedback e-mail address ocw@mit.edu.
  • For Codecademy, each exercise has a Q&A forum where you can report technical issues.
  • OpenStudy maintains a Feedback forum.

Where can I get answers to Python questions?
The Mechanical MOOC cannot provide Python-related answers, but there are thousands of other learners on OpenStudy who can. You can also e-mail your peer cluster, if you had yourself assigned to one.

What can I do if I get discouraged?
Read this. It’s awesome. (Thanks @scholz)

What do I get for completing the course?

Do I get a certificate?
Nope, but both Codecademy offers badges and OpenStudy has SmartScore, so you’ll get recognition of your work there. One of our long-term goals for Mechanical MOOC is to figure out how recognition works in this approach. NOTE: This MOOC will not offer an MITx certificate.

What good are the badges?
They are a shorthand for sharing your informal educational achievements on the Web, and a lot of smart people, including the good folks at Mozilla, are working hard to figure out how to make them more meaningful.

9 Responses to FAQs

  1. Pingback: The return of the Mechanical MOOC | Open Matters

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  4. Tom Lucas says:

    Typos……come on…proofread this stuff.

    • scarsonmsm says:

      Thanks, Tom. It’s a volunteer effort. Happy to correct whatever you can point out, and we’ll give it a more careful read soon.

  5. I’m a little concerned that this is for Python 2.6 & 2.7, because Blender uses 3.2. I’m sure most of the knowledge I gain from this will apply to Python 3.2, but I’ll certainly be unsure if the code I’m learning will work in the current version of Blender.

    • scarsonmsm says:

      That’s probably a question for the Blender community. The general consensus among Python programmers generally seems to indicate that what you learn in 2.6/7 translates pretty straightforwardly to 3.x.

  6. Pingback: Of headless MOOCs | The Mechanical MOOC – A Gentle Introduction to Python

  7. Pingback: The return of le Mooc Mécanique | Stephen Carson

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