Online, on-trend and on a roll

Massive Open Online Courses - known as MOOCs - are a great way to increase your knowledge and to access classes from prestigious institutions such as Harvard and MIT, although the process isn't without its critics

Intro to Astronomy is hard. I was expecting to learn the names of some constellations, maybe hear about the size of distant galaxies and how a star dies. But after watching six videos by Duke University's Ronen Plesser about azimuths, zenith angles, celestial meridians and sidereal time, I'm stumped by the first test question, which asks about the size of moon craters that can be seen with a certain telescope.

I head to the online discussion forum, where there are pages of advice on each question as well as plenty of anxious comments from beginners as clueless as me. Then again, one of these comes from a 14-year-old from Norway, who is learning all this in her third language. I watch the videos again and click back and forth among the quiz, a page of homework tips written by Plesser and his teaching assistant and a table of contents. Slowly, things start getting clearer.

I'm one of almost two million people who have signed up for a Mooc (Massive Open Online Course) on the website Coursera since it launched in early 2012. And while Coursera is the biggest provider of these classes - with 35 partner universities and 60 classes starting in January and February 2013 - rivals include Stanford's Udacity and edX, launched by MIT and Harvard, which are both less than a year old. In November, it was announced that Coursera is planning to team up with the American Council of Education to offer Mooc students credits for conventional universities and that the Gates Foundation has funded seven new Moocs, which are currently being developed.

What I quickly learn during my astronomy course and while studying Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (known as ModPo - a Coursera class by the University of Pennsylvania's Al Filreis) is that Moocs at their best can be the perfect combination of global and local, anonymous and personal. Discussion forums dedicated to each course are full of plans for meet-ups in hundreds of cities around the world. In the UK, a group of astronomy students are getting together soon for a night of stargazing; Arabic-speaking ModPo students have created their own support forum; and when an 81-year-old Greek man had trouble with the technical aspect of submitting his essay on Emily Dickinson, Filreis helped him get it online. Within days, there were 90 posts of encouraging feedback from other students.

All of Coursera's classes are currently free, but there are various plans to monetise the system, including charging for premium content or for accreditation, or selling information to potential employers. There's a possibility that Moocs will become important as a revenue stream for universities and that this will have a negative impact on non-Mooc students, but this needn't necessarily be the case.

If a teacher tapes her lectures for students to watch at home before the class, it could free up more - not less - time for individual tutoring. That is an idea that is known as the flipped classroom, which has been gaining momentum over the past five years.

For Falah Jassim, an Iraqi novelist and literary academic living in Ontario, the very size of Moocs - with class sizes regularly in the tens of thousands - is off-putting. He describes being "lost in a sea of comments" on the online forums, dislikes the lack of direct feedback from the lecturer and finds the workload overwhelming (in the case of ModPo, up to nine tutorial videos a week, plus an essay and several poems to read). He describes the course as "not an educational sphere as much as a forum to discuss poems with lovers of poetry".

Aisha Alchaar, on the other hand, is enthusiastic about the experience. A 16-year-old high-school student living in Saudi Arabia, Alchaar has used Coursera to study poetry, logic and programming. She likes the fact that the teachers can go into their topics at such depth and that it isn't all about grades and tests. "I used to think that poems should always rhyme and have such a clear and direct theme," she says, "but I realised [after ModPo] that there is so much more to poetry than literary devices."

It's clear that Moocs aren't yet a replacement for classroom-based learning - motivation is an issue, especially for those who are not part of regular study groups; the number of students who complete their courses is a small fraction of those who enrol - but their popularity proves that there is a huge demand for free, globally accessible education. In their present incarnation, I'm a fan. Now wish me luck: we're doing quantum mechanics this week.