Milking the MOOCs…

One of the things that I was keen to do during my “sabbatical” was to study something new using a MOOC. A MOOC is a massive open online course –  it’s usually free for anyone to sign up to and features several weeks of video lectures on a subject. There’s often homework and some also have a final dissertation or online exam to test the students’ understanding of the course material. The business model behind MOOCs appears to be based on persuading participants to pay a fee to gain official credit for their participation, but none of the courses I’ve seen require payment to access the course material or even receive your exam grade. One of the best known MOOC sites is Coursera, which is where I took part in the Introduction to Communication Science lessons created by the University of Amsterdam.

I deliberately started with a course that didn’t look too demanding in terms of the amount of time that was required each week, since I wasn’t sure what to expect or whether I’d be able to fit it in around my other projects. On average, I probably spent a couple of hours per week on this course over an 8 week period, and I did manage to do each week’s lessons within the week that they were released – doing a basic MOOC seems very much something that could fit around a job or other commitments. Depending on the course rules, you can sometimes save up lessons and catch up later, but I found that I quickly got into the habit of doing a little each week. It felt like a pleasantly contrasting task to the things I’d normally be doing in my day.

So what did I enjoy? Having someone distil the key points of a subject was a much appreciated break from self-driven learning, which I’ve found can involve following a trail from one academic paper to the next or jumping semi-blindly from one link to another. With a MOOC you’re not left hoping that you’re joining the dots to create a picture that will eventually make sense, because an expert has created a syllabus! It almost certainly saves time in getting an overview of the key concepts in an area that you’re unfamiliar with.

I also liked the convenience of having several short videos (the ones in this course were 3 – 5 minutes in length) rather than one long one. It was easy to see how far through the overall lesson you were or to take a break from note taking and make a cup of tea for 5 minutes while reflecting a bit on the material. Finally, the videos meant that I could take part from wherever I was located. For three of the weeks of the course, I was away from home – if this had been an evening class, I would have missed out, and worried about how to catch up later. Instead I was able to do the course from various locations around the world 🙂

Don't have a cow, man! Plenty to enjoy about online courses. Image credit: Flickr user Gorden L:

Don’t have a cow, man! Plenty to enjoy about online courses.
Image credit: Flickr user Gorden L:

And what might I change next time? Just watching an hour or so of video each week and taking notes does not ensure you’re actually retaining any or all of the information. I know more about this subject than I did before, but the bits that really stick in my mind are the ones that overlap with areas that I already knew about.  While I understand the benefits of multiple choice questions as homework and for the exam – in terms of being easy to grade automatically and making the course scalable – there are few learning advantages to the student. It often takes being forced to explain something in your own words to realise which bits of a theory you haven’t quite grasped and need to look at again. So, while the core lessons didn’t take much time to complete, to really get most benefit from this particular course, I’d factor in at least the same amount of time again to do some of the suggested reading and write your own summaries of it. To give credit to the course organisers, there was plenty of this suggested reading available on the site, but it wasn’t compulsory to pass the course.

MOOCs are sometimes described as virtual classrooms – but they really aren’t. Classrooms are places for discussing, questioning and demonstrating ideas as part of an ongoing dialogue. A MOOC (or at least this example!) is very much a one way experience: you watch of videos, take notes, answer some multiple choice questions, and possibly look up a few items in more detail. There’s no direct interaction with the lecturer. While there is the option of taking part in forums created for each course, this doesn’t provide a real time classroom feel, or guarantee direct feedback.  A MOOC is a step up from self-driven learning in terms of efficiency, but it’s not a direct competitor for a positive in-person learning experience.

Several years ago I spent a lot of time in Second Life for a work project and one thing that I enjoyed about taking part in events there was that there was a public instant message channel. That meant that you could chat with anyone else in the vicinity, and anyone present could read  the conversation and join in. This passing of public notes during a workshop or lecture often meant that you could ask someone else if you were stuck, or share links and comments about related ideas. This all helped to cement the learning.

A similar feature might work for MOOCs. While students may be taking them at any time of day, there are probably enough people taking part that you would find others studying at the same time you are – or you could form real time study groups to deliberately do so. Another option, which might mimic the real life university experience more closely, would be to offer tutorials for those students who wanted to pay for contact with the lecturer. Or offer free online hangouts or office hours. It’s hard to know if this would scale given the number of participants on the courses, but it might be interesting to see what the uptake was like.

Finally, I enjoyed hearing some metrics about this particular MOOC in the final wrap up lesson – over 48, 000 people enrolled on the course and 3150 completed the final exam. Two thirds of participants were female with 15% of students taking part from the US and 6% from India. Half were in employment and the largest age group was 24 – 32 year olds. These figures seem consistent with others that I’ve seen for MOOCS, including the high drop out rates reported . More comments about this in some of the articles below.

Now, onto my next class!

Further reading

Cath Ennis (and another friend, Eva Amsen) also completed the Communication Science MOOC. Cath shares her thoughts here.

A MOOC mystery: where do online students go? New Yorker article considering why only 4% of users finish a MOOC and half may not even watch a single lecture. Does the answer lie in making MOOCs an experience with more social cues?

“Traditional classroom educators long ago realized that when you crowd ten or twenty or a hundred students close together, learning, by default, becomes a social experience. Rather than constantly fighting the disorder of the system, some classes learned to harness it, adapting their practices and assumptions accordingly.”

Online university courses can’t change the world alone – New Scientist opinion piece on the challenges facing MOOCs.

“There are several basic requirements for enrolling in and engaging with these courses that are readily available for such populations, but are serious barriers for large portions of the world. These include regular access to a computer and high-speed internet, a level of previous education that’s sufficient to understand university-level content, the ability to understand courses offered almost exclusively in English, and enough free time to study for several hours a week.”

Is it time for MOOCs to open up? One of the Os in MOOC stands for open – but just how open are the resources offered?

MOOCmoocher – Useful blog by Katy Jordan about MOOCs. Katy also published this paper on enrolment and completion rates for MOOCs.

5 thoughts on “Milking the MOOCs…

  1. I was struck by the extremely low completion rate, too. I suppose that’s the flip side of making the courses free and extremely low stakes – there are zero consequences for dropping out! (Although, in my case, my boss and another colleague were doing at least one of the same MOOCs at the same time as me, so there was a little more pressure than usual to finish 🙂 )


    • Second Life was great for so many things. MOOCs would be more effective there, as the IM feature (audio or text only) would reinforce some of the necessary aspects of live interactive classes.

      I liked Second Life a lot. I wish it had been more widely appreciated and enduring.


  2. Pingback: URLs of wisdom (end of March 2014) | Social in silico

  3. Pingback: 2014 in blog posts | Social in silico

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