Rate My MOOCs

New websites let users rate free online classes. So far, the reviews seem to lack the vitriol directed at regular courses, suggesting users seem thankful for a free lunch.

February 27, 2013

Many educators haven’t figured out what to make of free online classes for the masses, but Silicon Valley developers and students are starting to.

At least three sites have started in recent months to let users of massive open online courses review the MOOCs they’ve taken.

The idea isn't new, of course. Rate My Professors has allowed anonymous reviews of professors for years, frequently to the ire of faculty.  But now developers are starting sites just for people who are taking MOOCs and other online offerings.

Emerson Malca, the 25-year-old founder of Grade My Course, calls his site “Yelp for education.” He said, so far, the reviews on his site have not been nearly as biting as those on Rate My Professors. Malca thinks students are more likely to give positive reviews because they are taking free classes, not taking out loans or facing a make-or-break grade. “Here the professor is more of a guide,” Malca said.

That leads to kinder, more constructive comments, he said.

Jesse Spaulding, who started Course Talk, sees a similar pattern in the reviews on his site. “These courses are free, so there’s a lot of good will just based on that alone,” he said.

Spaulding also thinks some professors suggest students visit his site. “That can definitely bias the sample,” Spaulding said.

To counter that, Spaulding said he tries to highlight users -- not all of them anonymous -- who have written multiple reviews or who have written reviews other users feel are fair.

Both developers said their sites help would-be MOOC students size up classes before they take them. A third MOOC rating site is TopFreeClasses.com.

Both sites give users an easy way to describe how difficult the course is -- just like Rate My Professors has an "easiness" rating -- and Grade My Course also lets users fill out how many hours a week they spent studying for the class. Perhaps because online students aren't in the room with a professor -- even though there is video -- the MOOC rating sites don't have Rate My Professors' much-maligned "hotness" rating.

Malca said professors – many of them at major universities that are posting lectures and class material online for free – have not complained to him about the site. He said he thinks professors who want to be pioneers by using MOOCs are willing to hear out critics. “They are really willing to take feedback to improve their course,” he said.

So far, though, there are not many MOOCs with poor ratings.

Presumably there is some sample bias there, too, as MOOC users who really don’t care can drop out if they lose interest – a step that is usually too costly to do in normal college classes. Data indicate fewer than 10 percent of MOOC users finish courses they begin.

Spaulding is not sure what the future of his site is. He said he’s between things and may need a partner to expand the site.

Malca’s big venture is StudyRoom, a startup that allows virtual study groups for students enrolled in online courses, including MOOCs.  Malca said StudyRoom has 50,000 registered users and funding from Imagine K12, an education-related venture capital firm.



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