Learning to “read” classical Chinese paintings

This piece was extracted from one of the final assignments of a Massive Open Online Course, China Humanities: The Individuals in Chinese Culture from Harvard University that I have just completed successfully. In this essay (which this post is derived from), I tried to interpret the painting named “Fish and Fish Hawk” by Zhu Da (朱耷) (1626-1705). I was elated when my essay was one of the work picked up by Professor Peter Bol, the lead academic for this MOOC for the final discussion of this course!

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Learning Chinese humanities from the best

This piece was extracted from one of the final assignments of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), China Humanities: The Individuals in Chinese Culture from Harvard University that I have just completed successfully. I have gained immensely from this MOOCs, learning from top professors from Harvard (and free too!). One of the intriguing new knowledge that I picked up is from Professor Eugene Wang who introduced to us “how to read” classical Chinese paintings.

In this essay (which this post is derived from), I tried to interpret the painting named “Fish and Fish Hawk” by Zhu Da (朱耷) (1626-1705). I was elated when my essay was one of the work picked up by Professor Peter Bol, the lead academic for this MOOC for the final discussion of this course!

Dr. Chow YN's work was picked up by Prof Bol in his final discussion.

The interpretation of Zhu Da’s “Fish and Fish Hawk

I have chosen Zhu Da’s “Fish and Fish Hawk” or more simplicisticaly translated as “Bird and Fish” painting. A image of the painting (shown below) can be found here: http://www.chinaonlinemuseum.com/painting-zhu-da-fish-hawk.php

What’s depicted

At first glance, this painting seems to show a hawk, which is interpreted as fish hawk by some, as a predator eyeing a fish swimming away from it (to the bottom left of the painting). The fish, with its eyes focussing upwards, seems to be aware of the imminent danger but it is pretending not to notice the fish hawk and thus making its escape as unnoticeable as possible but to no avail. The sense of helplessness on the part of the fish is evident. The fish hawk in fact has spotted the fish long ago and could pounce on the fish as and when it wishes! The predatory hawk is perching on a tree devoid of leaves, reminiscent of the “Cold Grove” style which in this case showing that the season could be late autumn or early winter. Thus it seems odd that, firstly a fish would swim to the surface in cold weather and secondly, it is also unusual to see fish hawk seeking prey, not in warmer weather but in the cold, desolate landscape.

How I “read” this painting

I think “Fish and Fish Hawk” is an important Zhu Da’s work as its hidden meaning could depict the life story. Zhu Da, as a direct descendant of the royal family of the former Ming dynasty living under the shadow of the Qing rulers has to tread very carefully in order to survive and not present himself as a threat to the new rulers. In fact, his bouts of seemingly insanity and his seeking of a monastic life for 40 years are his ploys to present himself as a harmless, eccentric or even mad and thus “worthless” descendant of the former royal family and hence he poses no threat to the Qing rulers at all. All along, like the fish in his painting, Zhu Da knows that he will be under the watchful eyes of the officials of the Qing rules as depicted by the fish hawk. After around 40 years of such “play-acting”, and perceiving that the Qing government’s lack of interest in him, Zhu Da only dared to leave the monastery to live a life as an artist. Zhu Da’s use of 八大山人(ba da shan ren) or “mountain man of the eight greats” gives two interpretations, both serve to cement his personality and political predicament. Firstly, as pointed out by some commentators, if one views Zhu Da’s signature of 八大山人 written vertically on his paintings, the words laughter (笑) and cry (哭) can easily be depicted. Secondly, by using the term 山人 (mountain man), he is telling those monitoring his actions that he is resigned to a rustic life, a life in the mountain, literally speaking and thus poses no threat to the Qing government at all!

In this painting, it is obvious that the predator, fish hawk represents the power-that-be or one of its functionaries which is watching over the scene tightly, even during the winter months!. I think Zhu Da depicts himself as the prey, the fish which is trying its best to get away quietly from the predator, but fully aware of the fact that he is not out of danger as yet. The fish hawk could strike at any moment!

As traditionally, fish hawks have been used by fishermen to help them to catch fishes. The presence of the fish hawk could also depict that the predator is under the “employ” of the Qing ruler, it is han jian (汉奸), a traitor among the people!

Relevance to present day

This painting is relevant to life today as many people, inclusive of people living in seemingly democratic nations are feeling just like Zhu Da did… where “big brother” is always watching. In our case, the surveillance for perceived threat to the power that be is extended now to social media realm and virtually all electronic communication too. We also feel like the fish, wanting to escape but not able to do so quick enough, knowing that if we make the wrong move we could be in serious trouble! The desolate scene depicted by Zhu Da also signifies the economic hardship felt by the poor denizen of the world, with a high unemployment or underemployment, income that has not really rise up for ages and real inflation eating daily into the living standard of the people.

Final thoughts

Obviously I am not an expert in classical Chinese painting but merely a very junior learner. I shared my work with these intentions:

  • Promoting lifelong learning via MOOCs.
  • Informing my readers about  this free (well auditing is still free) learning from a top university & top professors.
  • Encourage more people, especially those who are Chinese Malaysians who, like me, do not have a good grasp of the Chinese language, culture or humanities to take up this MOOC in the next offering (in fact this MOOC is open till Mar 2018 and you can still enroll and complete it if you work hard, like me!).

After this MOOC, I will now look at Chinese paintings, or more like “reading” these with a different mindset!

Learning and commenting about Duke-Kunshan University

I have been a loyal student of Harvard University’s highly successful massive open online course (MOOC) on the history of China, ChinaX for the last 14 months. I have successfully completed 9 out of the 10 mini-courses and am now more than half way through the last mini-course.

In week 46 of ChinaX, we were introduced to the remarkable success of Kunshan, a formal agricultural region between Shanghai and Nanjing. We learned that present day Kunshan has a per capita income of over US$19,000 and if we exclude the internal migrants’ income, the per capita income of the population with household resident right (hu kou) is US$52,000. The local government, in the era of the late 1970s (after Mao’s passing) took an unilateral decision to develop the economy of this agricultural region and this gamble (which did not receive any endorsement from the central government) paid off.

This particular module focussed on education, in particular how Kunshan’s local government made the decision to work with one of the elite universities from the USA, Duke University which roped in Wuhan University to form the Duke-Kunshan University. It showed the farsighted leadership of Kunshan in investing in human capital development and innovation as the twin pillars for their residents to stay competitive amidst greater & greater competition from other Chinese cities & regions. But the key phrase IMHO is ” Location, location & location “. No other cities have the great location of Kunshan for being nested between China’s two great cities of Shanghai & Nanjing and having two high speed rail systems having stops at Kunshan!

We were asked the following question as a part of the discussion/ assessment for our course:

What are some challenges Duke University and Kunshan face moving forward? What advice would you give Chancellor Liu and Vice-chancellor Bullock?

I am honoured that my answer was one of the few (among thousands of MOOC learners) picked up for discussion in the weekly “Office Hour” where either Professor Bill Kirby or Professor Peter Bol will review last week’s module, further the discussion and answer questions post by the learners. This is the second time that my contributions get picked up and I am really thrilled to share this with you. I am impressed with Duku Kunshan University’s Vice Provost, Dr. Nora Bynum for her “deciphering” of my online moniker of “everboleh”!

The following is my answer to the question above which ‘earned” me a mention by Professor Kirby. My moniker as an MOOC learner is “everboleh”. The segment of Office Hour Week 46 which touched on my contribution is between 11:30 to 13:00 minutes of this video.



I think Kunshan will have to figure out why it did not involve the Taiwanese whose support was the cornerstone for its eventual success. Both Duke, Kunshan and Wuhan will need to ensure that there are significant landmark successes that DKU can score. Nothing of the prior successes that each of these three partners can guarantee the success of DKU. Being the two largest economies in the world China and the US need not only to engage with each other but the rest of the world, especially India. The challenge for DKU is to fulfill its mission to create human capital not only for Kunshan but which can bring in the kind of human interactions with the rest of the world.

For Duke, the challenge as related by Kunshan Party Secretary, Guan Aigo that the city needs more than just DKU to be successful. How Duke can secure the biggest part of this interaction before other big universities from the US and UK make a move on Kunshan is a relationship game that it must succeed in to ensure Duke’s investment in time and effort (and reputational risks) will pay off.

The departmental-less approach of DKU is new even to Duke, how the cross disciplinary approach in the face of fierce guarding of their respective turf by academics (which is a tradition that cut across all culture and national boundaries) is something Professors Liu and Bullock have to iron out fully. However as a practitioner in education management, I think the idea of a Masters in Management Science that cater to the needs of liberal arts and humanity graduates to take on business administration is a concept that may take hold in not only China but other regions. It is a concept that I will surely adopt for the new university that I am currently helping to establish in Malaysia. I shall watch the progress of DKU with great interest and hoping to learn and emulate its success.

(Source of feature photograph:  http://dku.edu.cn/sites/all/themes/kunshan/images/overview.jpg )

Low completion: a killer of MOOCs?

The New York Times reported recently that the University of Texas System may be having second thoughts about its foray into the realm of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC).

There are three major concerns that were raised:

  1. The completion rate of MOOCs offered has been languishing between one to 13 %;
  2. Majority of the learners were not from the home state;
  3. Of those few learners who have completed, the bulk of them were people who have already college education.

I think the decision makers need to think strategically about the objectives for their institutions being involved in MOOC.

Low completion rate: look at the total number of learners that passed

The nature of MOOC needs to be understood and we need to avoid comparing apples with oranges. MOOCs, unlike regular on-campus or traditional online courses are “Opened” in its enrollment. This means that anyone with the basic internet access will be able to enroll and un-enroll as they please. Many who enrolled may also choose (for whatever reason(s)) not to be active in the MOOC they have signed up for. Thus if we measure the completion rate of MOOCs based on the number of people signing up we will get a very low figure. If the completion rate is computed from the number of people who have “attended” at least 50% of the online courseware, I think this will be a better and fairer measurement of the completion rate. After all in traditional bricks and mortar setting, you do not count the number of students based on the number who applied to take the course but the number who have paid. Thus a even closer analogy for MOOC should be the number of learners who intended to complete the MOOC versus the actual number who passed. Professor Owen Youngman of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism provided a great insight into this issue in following the completion of the first run of his highly successful MOOC, “Understanding media by understanding Google“.

Analysis of passing rates of Owen Youngman’s maiden MOOC, “Understanding media by understanding Google” in Nov 2013. (Image source: http://qz.com/149406/how-two-thirds-of-my-students-never-showed-up-but-half-of-them-passed/)

In Youngman’s maiden foray into MOOC, which incidentally I was one of the 1,196 successful learners, if we measure the passing rate as the number of learner that pass versus the number who complete their homework (qualifying them to take the final examination), the passing rate was actually 50.1% instead of the 2.2% that the conventional calculation would provide. The fact that should be remembered is not the passing rate but the number of people who have successfully passing the MOOC, which in this case, at 1,196 is a great achievement by Youngman’s team in whichever way you measure it.

 Majority of learners are not from the home state: does this matter?

People who evaluate MOOCs must bear in mind that MOOCs are, as the word “Massive” indicates, huge in number. While those who have approved the investments would want to see benefits shown for the institutions’ home state, these cannot be measured just on the number of “home” state learners who have enrolled or passed. MOOCs are meant for institutions to showcase their academic delivery expertise to not only those learners who come on campus but to the world at large. It should be catching learners in the “long tail” of the global learning community. It is meant to reach out to those who, under normal circumstances, never have the chance to attend on-campus courses due to many circumstances (financial, time or career constraints). If a course is meant to benefit only home state’s learners, then MOOC may be a wrong platform for it. Conventional e-learning delivery via learning management systems such as Moodle or BlackBoard would have been better. Thus the expectations of the decision makers and funding authorities must be realistic. MOOCs can be used to as a very effective means to project the brand of an institution, especially to the “long tail” end of the learner’s domain. Those who may not have heard of or know about your institution will, after taking a good MOOC from your institution, be impressed by the brand and which will have a positive effect when these people (or their offspring) are looking for a good college education. Thus I think many of the institutions on the MOOC trails are thinking along the same line.

In the time of great competition for the overseas students’ attention, the colleges with a good spread of MOOCs will gain reputationally in leaps and bounce to put them in a better position in the mind of these overseas students. The proof of the pudding is in its eating, so if a college’s MOOC is well delivered and the learners gain great knowledge, it gives those wishing (and thus may have the means) to study on campus a greater confidence to apply. The benefits to the home state will be in attracting good overseas students to their on-campus or traditionally delivered online courses. This is the under-valued payoff for MOOCs. So does it still matter if the bulk of an MOOC’s learners are not from the home state? I do not think so.

The bulk of the learners scoring a pass have college education: why?

If the bulk of an MOOC’s successful learners are those with some college education or higher, it could mean that the level of this particular MOOC is pitched at senior undergraduate or even graduate levels. It is not the fault of the concept of MOOC. In fact it is an issue of academic standard not the delivery system of concept. Thus if the MOOC is intended to attract mainly high school graduates or freshmen level students, it should have been designed as such. Sometimes the delivery of a course and its learning materials may both appear to be at undergraduate level, but when the assessment system is converted to MOOC level, it may appear too difficult (with lots of discussions, short essays type of questions and complex multiple choice questions) for freshmen but it would have been fine for those who have had degree level education.

To take MOOC successfully requires one to be very disciplined. This may also be one of the reasons that some of these MOOCs show a low number of freshmen learners who passed. Adult learners are much more motivated and are usually more focused. Full-time students may also have a full load of classes already and thus may be spreading themselves too thinly.

One other aspect of MOOCs that those funding authorities and decision makers must take into consideration is the “flipped classroom” concept that MOOC confers. In this context, on-campus students are directed to view the MOOC lectures prior to coming to class. In every class, instead of the instructor repeating the content covered in the MOOC’s video lectures, will use the contact hours to discuss, to further explain and to engage the students accordingly. I have attended one such MOOC by Stanford University (“Technology Entrepreneurship 1) where “flipped classroom” was reported by Assistant Professor Chuck Eesley to have benefited his on-campus students. In this case the class was run about the same time for both the MOOC and on-campus learners. So any decision on the effectiveness and benefits of MOOCs should not be evaluated in isolation. The number of people benefiting from an MOOC could be substantially more than the first run of an MOOC.

I think the disruptive effects of MOOCs to academic institutions have surely been over-exaggerated.  This could be due to the lack of an holistic understanding of what MOOC can do and ignorant of the interaction between MOOCs and conventional delivery of learning.


Dr. Chow YN is a “veteran” MOOC learner. He has already completed over 20 MOOCs and is currently pursuing two more. Dr. Chow provides consultancy in education management and technology commercialization. He also provides regular advising to parents and students seeking an unbiased advice on tertiary education.

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The M in MOOC stands for Massive!

Inside Higher Ed reported that the University of Wisconsin – Madison is revamping its Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) offering. It will put emphasis on MOOCs that have local interests. This was done at the back of 3.2% average completion rate for Wisconsin – Madison’s MOOCs. Although this is low, it still falls within the 3 to 7 % range that is the average for MOOCs in terms of completion rate.

As a “veteran” MOOCer, I think Wisconsin-Madison has missed the whole point about MOOC by going local. MOOC is the means by which academic and other learning institutions can extend their reach to learners at all corners of the world whose only criteria of participation (aside from prior knowledge specific to some courses) is access to the Internet. Local learners can well afford the time (and resources?) to take up on-campus courses. By “going local” there may be many consequences such as:

  1. Lower sign up figures:

With an averagely popular MOOC, you can expect at least 30,000 enrollment. With local-focused MOOCs, you will bound to have a much lower enrollment figure as your subject will not have broad enough interest to the “Massive” part of MOOC. Hence a figure of 3,000 enrollment is already very generous, I think it will be more in the range of 800 – 1500. You will not have the kind of geographical reach that MOOC is designed to bring. Will you still be able to “qualify” your courses as MOOCs?

2. Lower total number of people completing the MOOCs: (Is completion rate more important than the number of learner benefiting from your MOOCs?)

The cost of putting up Wisconsin-Madison’s revamped MOOCs, IMHO will not be that much different from the previous version. With 4% completion rate of the “old” MOOCs and with say 30,000 enrollment, you would stand to educate and benefit 1,200 people. With an enrollment figure of 1,000 and a completion rate of say triple of the conventional 4%, you will only educate more or less 80 people. Hence your return on invested effort (the MOOC industry has still not figured out a business model, thus it is best to measure return on invested effort rather than investment at this point) will be very low.

To benefit 80 – 100 local learners, you might as well provide free on-campus delivery of the course rather than using the more expensive MOOC system.

I think what Wisconsin-Madison needs to do is to look into the delivery system of their “old” MOOCs and find out from learners or if possible engage a sample of learners (with incentives) to give them answers to what work for the learners and what elements are the “turnoffs”. By improving the completion rate by just 2 to 3 percent, a significant increase in the number of people benefiting from the institution’s MOOCs can be attained.

What elements of an MOOC that worked for me may not work for everyone. However in my case I think these are, for me at least the success factors in an MOOC:

(a) Clear and concise learning objectives and learning outcomes. The kind of pre-requisite knowledge and skills must be well specified as well. The syllabus must be well written and available BEFORE the course commences to allow learners to judge whether they want to or have the pre-requisites to benefit from enrolling and learning.

(b) Tie to (a) a series of short video lectures, “purpose-shot” (i.e. shot purely in MOOC fashion and not a class recording). Each video lecture should be around 8 to 10 minutes long, covering a learning point each. Long video covering many points will lose learners and it is not easy to resume learning if you have to take a break while watching a 1 hour lecture.

(c) Tie to (b) a good summary of the learning points to be achieved for the chapter, summarizing the key learning outcomes attained with glossary of new terms / concepts.

(d) A clear and easy to follow assessment regime. I for one is a kind “loner” when it comes to studying. I like discussion forum and will take part even if not required by the assessment regime if the conversation is interesting. I never like to work in a group in which the bulk of the assessment for knowledge attainment is based. In Stanford University’s pioneer “Technology Entrepreneurship” MOOC, I was let down by some of my fellow group members (we were from Malaysia, Singapore, and Pakistan) to the extent that we could not develop our project fully (luckily the assessment system made allowance for such scenario). I think group work should still be used but assessment of which should not occupy a significant chunk of the final grade. I also do not like peer-based-assessment for written work. This is because the system will not have the ability to distinguish the serious peer assessors from those who just want to complete the task and simply assign a grade. In fact, I have an idea: why not engage some of these serious peer reviewers as course monitors (a sort of class representatives) give them some Teaching Assistant’s privileges to “double mark” a group of learners’ work. In return these serious peer assessors can be given some incentives such as free enrollment into verified assessment (i.e Coursera’s Signature Track or edX’s Verified Certificate) which usually cost a fair bit of money especially if you are not earning US dollars like me.

In short, learners’ expectations and what an MOOC promised to deliver must tally. Some MOOCs look good on the introduction page but the content was either not suitable or too demanding of the learner. Some will have unrealistic assessment regime that drives away those who already enrolled.

The “we build it and they will come” expectation of some of the MOOC providers has to be erased from their vocabulary! What happens will likely be this, veteran MOOCers like me will come, even sign up and look around, feeling disappointed and dropout from the course!

A great way to learn about genetics & how it affects you

I was one of the “guinea pigs” of Queen’s University of Belfast in 1985 when along with 5 others from the Class of 1985, I was awarded a scholarship to be the pioneer batch of Master of Science students in the newly minted Biotechnology programme.

A lot the then state-of-the-art knowledge that I was imparted with have indeed been superseded over the last 20 odd years of intense research in this domain. However, the basics in genetics, I hope do not change much.

When I first review this course, Genes and the Human Condition from The University of Maryland under Coursera, I thought to myself, since this course does not have any requirements in advanced biology, it may be too easy for me. I guess I did not know how much I have forgotten about genetics that I picked up about 30 years ago. After taking Week 1 classes, I have decided to stick to this course till its completion. I guess I have a lot of unlearning and re-learning to do. 

Although the course information states that there is no requirement for advanced biology. I think one will have to have at least some knowledge of high school level biology to appreciate the course fully. Professor Tammantha O’Brien (who gives Week 1 classes) is very animated in the way she teaches and the lectures can be a bit too fast at times, her enthusiasm to teach is infectious on the learners’ mood to learn. In short, you will learn a lot if you make the effort to keep up with her. Professor. O’Brien’s co-instructor, Professor Raymond J. St. Legar’s classes has yet to start.

There is still a couple of days to the end of Week 1 and I urge those who want to know about how genes work and how genetics affects you should give this MOOC a go.

Already this “revision” course for me has kept me updated on the subject of genetics. I will be a better teacher if I get to teach my plant tissue culture class again! It took me less than 3 hours to complete Week 1, but I expect that I will need to put in more in later weeks because Week 1 is a sort of revision for me!

(This article is contributed by Dr. Chow Yong Neng)

Creating tangible value from MOOCs?

Since the pioneers of the MOOC movement have been the US universities, it is understandable for the World to expect some sort of leadership in this field from these pioneers. One thing that have been missing from most of these players is indeed a credible business model, without which MOOCs may not be sustainable.

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Since the pioneers of the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) movement have been the US universities, it is understandable for the World to expect some sort of leadership in this field from these pioneers.

One thing that have been missing from most of these players is indeed a credible business model. Along the way, both Coursera and Udacity have introduced “premium” assessment model whereby the identity of the MOOC learner is verified (in Udacity’s case, it even have an online proctored examination system) and hence the academic credit earned will be acceptable to some institutions. My son took an introductory statistics course from Udacity and under “ProctorU”  (an online proctored examination service company) his credit, granted by St. Jose State University should be acceptable to his US university. The fees for this was US$150.  However all these add-on services are not paying the bills for these players. For the massiveness of its enrollment, MOOCs only have completion rates of about 7%, and even lower percentage of these learners would be “buying” the premium services.

I have mentioned in my previous article on MOOC that there are several ways that the MOOC players can generate income streams. In fact a recent report stated that one of the income streams (as I have mentioned) is indeed the recruitment of students to the universities associated with one of the MOOC players. 2 years ago I mooted the idea of MOOC to some for-profit higher education providers in Malaysia, but none managed to see beyond the trees to the positive branding effects of MOOC. Perhaps now with this article they should say, “We should have listened to that fellow”!!

I do not think that this revenue stream will be large, but I think the branding effect of successful MOOCs are great for the providing institutions. Whether this will end up in positive foreign student recruitment (which is a very complicated and complex affair) and how the MOOC players are paid for the recruitment is a different matter (will it be cost-per-click through or full fledged recruitment services?).

I think there is one element that none of the big MOOC player:s have explored: the corporate training domain. Although Udacity’s “nanodegree” is a good initiative that plots a MOOC course-learning path for learners. If they complete the suite of Udacity’s MOOCs successfully, this will put them in a position of advantage with skill-sets that employers (who have collaborated with Udacity)  want. This model is still sticking to mainly academic learning mixed with professional-skills courses. In fact many of the existing MOOCs have elements of learning that can be easily re-purposed for corporate learning and training usage. These learning courseware and delivery system are the key to creating a recurring revenue stream for the MOOC players. If the learning outcomes of these can be pegged with college credits or “star employers” acceptance as in the case of nanodegree of Udacity, I think the corporate learning providers out there will be able to sell these to their clients and learners easily.

With more and more smaller MOOC players with varying degree of quality coming on stream these days, I feel that some sort of consolidation will have to take place soon, especially with the current lack of any profitable business models.

(This article is contributed by Dr. YN Chow)

What’s going on in MOOC world?

This is the original article (unedited) on MOOC that was published in Focus Malaysia on June 08, 2013. It was written under the name of Plantcloner, the moniker used by Dr. YN Chow who had a column with Focus Malaysia for a stint. The published article’s title was, “What is going on in the revolutionary MOOC world”.

A new learning phenomenon was born in early 2012. It is called Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). MOOC has revolutionized the learning world with class enrolments in the range of thousands with some going to over 160,000. The era of democratization of learning was created, so was the idea of separating learning from credentialization & certification.

Almost all the big names in Western academia have joined the MOOC movement. This has been followed by notable universities from Asia. In the USA alone, there are three prominent players in the MOOC world. The most popular in the number of learners signing up is Coursera which has over 3.7 million learners, 377 courses 80 partner universities. Udacity which provides a smaller number of courses, but with a much more “standard” format of quality learning content is perhaps best known as the pioneer of the MOOC world. The most elite club of all is perhaps EdX which was formed by MIT and Harvard but joined later by the likes of Stanford, UC Berkeley, & University of Texas System. EdX also has the elite members from Asia such as Peking University, Kyoto University, Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, and Seoul National University to name a few. However, Yale has decided to join Coursera in addition to National University of Singapore and a host of European and South American universities, making Coursera perhaps the most comprehensive in terms of member institutions, with the capability of 5 languages. Not to be outdone, 21 “redbrick” British universities, led by Open University (UK) formed Futurelearn in early 2013. However, to-date, there has been no offering from Futurelearn as yet.

Despite the revolutionary nature of MOOC, not everyone in the academic world supports it. Some academicians feel that MOOC does not provide sufficient learning experience such as student-to-student and faculty-to-students interactions. Others question the wisdom of spending scarce resources on a project that does not have a clear returns on investment. There are also questions raised on the lack of proctored examination for the various certification to safeguard academic standards and integrity. Some question the relatively low completion rate of learners of MOOC. Data from Coursera indicated that out of 100% of learners who sign up, about 70% will “turn up” for the start of the MOOC. Only about 30% would attempt the first assignment and 7 to 9% will stay and complete the course successfully. If we put this in the proper context, MOOC allows an institution to reach at least 1,000 times its classroom capacity in terms of learners. For a typical MOOC of 30,000 learners, 9% completion rate translates into a staggering 2,700 learners!

This author thinks that the detractors of MOOC have missed a very important point. That is, learning can now be easily segregated from certification & credentialization, an idea that was promoted by Salman Khan of Khan Academy (KA) fame (KA is one of the pioneered of MOOC but focus mainly on learning at primary & secondary levels). Thus democratization and massification of learning by MOOC has to be separated from credentialization and academic certification. Those who want to take up certification of their learning & knowledge attained via MOOC should have access to and be willing to pay for such certification. In fact this is precisely what both Coursera and Udacity have provided independently.

In Coursera’s case, it provides what it termed “Signature Track” where for a fees of US$49.00, a learner can have his/her identity digitally verified (using the latest webcam and other online imaging technology). Thus a “Signature Tracked” learner will have his/her identity authenticated thereby his/her certification by Coursera’s partner institution verified. How acceptable “Signature Track” is to the academic and industry worlds remains to be seen at this early days.

Udacity has gone perhaps in a more traditional direction. It has teamed up with San Jose State University (SJSU) to offer “College Credit” for US$150.00 per course. Thus anyone signing up for one of Udacity’s MOOC with “College Credit” will essentially, if he/she passes the online proctored examination, be given relevant college credit for that course. This opens up possibilities for any learners who may need the “College Credit” such as university students who may not have such a course offered at their college to take Udacity’s MOOC and earn the relevant credit. At US$150.00 for a course, it is a reasonably affordable fee. In fact the author’s son is taking Udacity’s “Elementary Statistics” to earn “College Credits” that he hopes to transfer to his degree program later. Of course, the key question is, how acceptable is SJSU’s credit by the university that finally award the author’s son a degree. As SJSU belongs to the California State University System and accredited by Western Association of Schools and Colleges this may not be a great issue. Initial feedback from this author’s 17-year-old son indicates that Udacity’s format of interesting and aesthetically pleasing video is gaining the confidence of this young learner.

Not every institution is geared to offer MOOC. If one has not planned the whole project well, the negative impact to the institution’s reputation is immense. This was  exactly what happened to Georgia Institute of Technology in February 2013. The course lecturer did not understand the scale of MOOC and used a free Google Spreadsheet to handle learners’ groupings. Google Spreadsheet has a capacity of 50 simultaneous “sign-ins”. With tens of thousands learners being told to confirm their grouping at the start of this MOOC the system just collapsed. The author was one of the learners and after struggling for 3 days to get on the course grouping, and before Coursera’s shutting the course down, he un-enrolled himself, fully disgusted with Geogia Tech for wasting his time and expectation on “Fundamentals of Online Learning: Planning and Application”. Needless to say, he will not touch any MOOCs from Georgia Tech with a barge pole.

Closer to home, Taylor’s University seems to be the first in Malaysia to jump on the MOOC bandwagon. The author has signed up and evaluated Taylor’s offering, “Entrepreneurship”. This maiden MOOC of Taylor’s attracted about 900 learners. However, the heavy reliance on recordings of “live” lectures has dampened the impact of this MOOC. It is very difficult to follow a lecture when you cannot see the slide presentation and having to follow the professor’s every movement in front of the cameras. Nevertheless it is a good start for Malaysia.