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A conversation in review

Published on 15 August 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

Blogging is at its best when it generates a conversation that elicits new ideas and garners new perspectives. Earlier this month, Diplo’s Hannah Slavik did just that when she posted a blog asking whether we can teach 20 000 students at the same time. Her post offers Coursera  as an example. It recently registered 680 000 students in 43 courses. When comparing this to Diplo, we are overshadowed and yet we have almost 100% completion rate. Compare this to the small percentage of 160 000 students enrolled in Stanford’s MOOC on artificial intelligence that completed the course.

Slavik decided to enrol in one of these mega courses…alongside 19,999 others. Week 1 generated some 400 discussion threads, some with over 50 postings. And so began her search to marry limited time with the desire to distill the best of what was being discussed. And what of evaluation? Can two tutors accurately assess the progress made by 20 000 students? Slavik ended her post by asking readers whether they thought this methodology (or elements of it) could work for professional training. The replies made for interesting reading:

In answer to Pete Cranston’s question as to whether or not she’d learn anything in the course and if she could sit an exam in it, Slavick responded: I think like in any learning experience, what you get out of it depends on what you put into it. If you spend the time to read, listen, reflect and discuss, you will learn a lot (more than you could just by picking up a textbook on the topic, certainly).

Seeiti mentioned the two trends in online learning that are particularly evident today: (i) the importance of learning to learn / unlearn / relearn, also considered the ‘literacy of the 21st century by Alvin Toffler and (ii) the added value that smaller groups carefully created similar to the dynamics promoted by Diplo to improve results. Jovan Kurbalija caution about the limits of the highly important resources of our era: time and attention.

Maureen Hilyard was categorical in her response: How can one lecturer really know if everyone of his/her 20,000 students is really engaged? and can you honestly say he cares? Admittedly she says she’s been spoiled by the attention she gets on Diplo courses but yet Slavik counters with the need to question how we can scale up. Is there a way to scale up, making more use of peer exchange – without going to the mass learning levels used by Coursera and other MOOCs?

Valmikki, another Diplo graduate, cites much of the value of small courses as lying in the group interaction. His fear is that in large groups,  a lot of great points of view would be missed routinely. Yet he also feels these mega courses have something to offer. The information alone, provided by the course (videos, power points, audios, word files etc) can be of great value.

Kerron Ramganesh is looking at how the emerging field of Learning Analytics can allow for a much more enriching personal experience for an online learner. She posits the difference between reaching and teaching: We cannot effectively teach 20,000 students right now but we can definitely REACH 20,000 students using the technology.

John wrote in to share a TED talk given by one of the founders of Coursera in which she explains how some students self-organise into smaller study groups. With the cost of education getting out of reach for many, John sees cheap, high-quality online education – combined with social elements of physicality / locality – as the emerging normal for college courses.

Mubarak picks up on the economic angle. Think of the millions of aspiring students who, mostly in the developing world who cannot afford the fees. For them MOOC is a real blessing.

Fouad Riaz Bajwa, from Pakistan, weighs in to say that we are heading for a future where connected and networked learning over high-speed broadband is not a distant dream and will be the norm. From Bajwa’s experience, there is no alternative for face-2-face education but if the proper environment is designed to take the same f-2-f class learning complemented by an online learning system, the experience changes.


Enock Othin reckons that online education is one of the best ways of education as it forces students to do more research on their own. He, too, considers the tuition costs for small-class courses and like other respondents, urges Diplo to find a way to offer more scholarships.

Robert Kikonyogo acknowledges the benefits of online training because it is the cheapest in form of transport costs, time management, and access to resources (E-Library) as well as the University staff which is not the same thing that happens when studying face to face in the classroom. He reckons that  Diplo should be hired by other Universities or higher institutions and train the top management about how this system works especially in developing countries where studies are pedagogical. We’re all on for that, Robert!

Daniel Abreu Mejía has completed an introduction to sociology with Princeton University using the Coursera platform. Holding two international masters he has some experience of high quality learning education and he was completely satisfied with Coursera.  Yet he recognises the limitations of lack of a real teacher-student relationship […] Exams were peer-reviewed by at least 5 students and I definitively felt that I got valuable feedback. He opted to concentrate on reading the material, watching the lectures and debates and seriously doing the exam and peer reviewing others, rather than participate in online forums. This is how he made it work.

Over on Diplo’s Facebook page, the comments continued.

Lenandlar Singh reckons that if you need to share a focused set of ideas, then MOOCs are not for that. Conversely, if you wish to explore things and take them wherever they go, MOOCs can facilitate that easily (providing you find people with similar interests).

Asif Kabani thinks that mass e-learning is now becoming essential for diplomats, especially in developing regions of Asia and Africa.

Russell Woruba sees the challenge as how technology can be used to ensure costs are reduced for the economy.

Arsène Tungali notes that with smaller courses, as those offered by Diplo, students are  committed to make hypertext entries, complete weekly quizzes, blogs and a final exam. You don’t get a certificate on attendance. You have to pass.

The discussion was interesting and varied. Seems like there is a lot to be said on both sides. Are MOOCs the way forward? Will one-to-one attention always be preferable, even if not financially feasible? Is the answer more scholarships? Do MOOCs rely too much on student motivation? The debate continues.

2 replies
  1. Jovan Kurbalija
    Jovan Kurbalija says:

    It is a very good summury.
    It is a very good summury. Let me add another aspect of online learning which we will have to address sooner or later. It is a STORYTELLING. A good storytelling is vital for our emotional and social life. We learn a lot through stories. It is clear message from the book “The Storytelling Animal” (here is the link: https://ow.ly/d0yRs ). Can we tell good stories online? Is a well-delivered lecture (TED style) sufficient? Is multimedia a new way of telling stories? We should keep in mind that – although it was told by one person – a good story is always dialogue with the audience. A good story is adjusted to the audience. It is anchored in the dreams of problems of people who are listening.

  2. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    Thanks for this excellent
    Thanks for this excellent summary, and thanks to all who joined the discussion. It’s really been useful for stimulating new ideas and reflection on MOOCs, but also on our established online learning practices. I think what has emerged from the discussion for me is the importance of direct contact with tutors or teachers in learning and the value that adds to the learning process. A motivated student can learn a lot through individual study and group discussion in an MOOC setting, but having a experienced tutor or lecturer guide discussion and pay individual attention to each participant brings the learning experience to a new level. However, the whole question of fees and financing is crucial – there is no way around the fact that small group online learning is expensive, and the funds have to come from somewhere, whether this is the individual student or a funding agency. Is there a way to scale up to reduce costs, yet retain the special value of the small group learning experience? Looking forward to continuing this discussion – please post your ideas and suggestions.


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