Jonathan Haber ’85 enjoyed his undergraduate education so much that he went back for a second round, except this time, he decided to do it all virtually, and instead of spending four years on his education, he did it in one.
Through MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, Haber took the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree of classes as part of a self-assigned educational experiment. Haber, who calls himself an educational researcher, wanted to see if MOOCs, which have surged in popularity and press over the past few years, could provide the equivalent educational value of a four-year liberal arts degree program. Although his project just ended—Haber celebrated his “graduation” in January 2014—he found that learning, whether formal or informal, never stops.
After graduating from Wesleyan with a degree in chemistry, Haber entered the world of journalism, taking freelance assignments for the science and technology pages of newspapers. He tried out the publishing industry, running his own company for a number of years before working at a large educational textbook publisher, but the atmosphere wasn’t quite right.
“I guess I’d run my own show for so long, I wasn’t really happy in the corporate world,” Haber said. “So I decided to take a crack at doing some independent projects, which is what I’ve been doing the last couple of years.”
In 2012, Haber launched his “Critical Voter” project, an attempt at creating his own online curriculum to teach critical thinking by using the ongoing presidential election as a case study. When it ended, he recommended that his followers explore formal logic courses. One such course that he came across himself was a class called “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue.” It was run by Duke University and hosted on the educational website Coursera for free.
“That was how I discovered MOOCs,” Haber said. “At that time there was a lot of hype about them, that they would replace college as we knew [it].”
Haber was ready to test whether that were true.
“The voice I wanted to add to the conversation was that of a [student]—one who had completed the number of courses required to meet the distribution and degree requirements of a traditional liberal arts B.A. program,” Haber wrote in a piece for Slate, titled “My Year of MOOCs.”
When shaping his project, which would take up the entirety of 2013, Haber modeled his education plan after what he experienced at Wesleyan. He would need to take 32 course credits, fulfill the same distribution requirements in the first two “years,” and end up with the same fulfillment of major requirements at the end of his four “years.” Haber called it his “Degree of Freedom.”
For his major, Haber wanted to study something that not only would sustain his interests for a year, but also would test the ability of MOOCs to teach in an online environment. Philosophy hit both points; he was already familiar with Greek philosophy but wanted to know more about modern philosophy, and the subject’s normally discussion-based classes would be challenging to execute in an online environment.
Really, though, Haber said that he was pursuing a double major. One focus was philosophy, but in a way, his other major was the MOOC itself. Throughout the project, he blogged about his experiences and thoughts and conducted weekly interviews with MOOC educators, developers, and critics, including President Michael Roth, whose “Modern and the Postmodern” Coursera class Haber completed.
Haber also took “Property and Liability: An Introduction to Law and Economics” by Chair and Professor of Economics Richard Adelstein. However, he also branched out, trying programs from different sources.
“One of the benefits of an online education was I wasn’t restricted to one university,” Haber said. “For my degree program, I took classes from Harvard and Stanford and from a large number of universities that all they had in common was they were providing courses for free through MOOCs or other free learning mechanisms.”
As the “final exam” of his yearlong immersion, Haber tested what he learned at the December conference of the American Philosophical Association (APA).
“Attending APA was trying to see [if] I [had] learned enough to interact with people who do philosophy for a living, and as I described in that Slate piece, I certainly was not the peer of the people there, who were for the most part Ph.D.s,” Haber said. “But I did follow along and I was able to have discussions and even ask questions, which I use when I say perhaps I should be considered the equivalent of someone with a B.A. in philosophy.”
Haber’s experience with MOOCs, however, differed from the experience someone without a college degree would have completing the same project. Although his online curriculum was a far cry from his original chemistry major, Wesleyan was where Haber learned how to pace himself academically and learn in an academic environment.
“The average 18-year-olds would not be able to discipline themselves to learn through these free learning resources that require a high degree of self motivation,” Haber said. “The research shows that’s who MOOCs are used by: 75 [percent] of students are people who already have a B.A. My original college experience gave me a set of skills that made getting through this process possible.”
In the end, Haber said that the work he completed for his “Degree of Freedom,” while considerable, was nothing near what he did for his original Wesleyan degree. Yet workload alone does not determine whether or not MOOCs are educational.
“You don’t measure college by the tests you took or the papers you wrote, but who you became,” Haber said.
Haber is now working on a book with MIT Press about his experience called “MOOCs: An Essential Guide.” He’s also begun consulting with start-up companies in the field, offering his educational expertise as not only a professional, but also as a student.
One of the major takeaways of his project, Haber said, was that MOOCs cannot—and should not—replace an undergraduate experience, but that they don’t need to do so in order to be successful.
“My experience is nobody really stops learning once you get a college diploma,” Haber said. “MOOCs give you the chance to continue that college learning throughout your life.”