My First MOOC!

moocSeems like I’ve been having a lot of interesting firsts lately…my first EdCamp last week, my first zip lining a few weeks ago (it was fun!) and now my first MOOC. For those new to  the term (which hopefully isn’t too many of you at this point!), MOOC is an acronym for the biggest and, arguably, most disruptive movement in education today: Massive Open Online Courses.

MOOCs, as they’re called, have become the big thing of late in higher education. Numerous colleges and universities are offering MOOCs, sometimes independently, and sometimes as parts of consortia, such as edX, which is based here in Boston. MOOCs do not offer college credit, typically, but most do offer some kind of certificate of completion for students who complete the course. Anyone may enroll in a MOOC and it’s not unusual to find tens of thousands of students from all around the world enrolled in a single course. The most common structure of a MOOC includes online video lectures, homework assignments, an online community to allow interaction and/or collaboration and some type of assessment.

The idea is that all of the materials are available online at all times so that students can access them any time, any place. It’s not fundamentally different from old school correspondence courses by mail (remember those?!? They date back to 1728!), radio- and television-based courses or the early internet-based courses. What make MOOCs hot, I think, is that prestigious universities, like Harvard, MIT and Stanford, are getting in the game and that current technologies allow for a better user experience than in the past. Students can now interact and collaborate with each other though a portal, it’s easy to create videos, slide decks and other products that can be uploaded to a course interface and the web sites are easy to use, which opens up the medium to a larger number of people. In fact, when you look at the enrollment of some courses, there are people in their 70s and 80s who are enrolled, presumably a population that is less tech-savvy than your average 20-something year old.

Okay, so that’s the background to the story. I’ve been reading about MOOCs for the past few months and I’ve been fascinated by the explosion in popularity. I like the idea that non-traditional students can easily take courses that they’re interested in. I like that it’s convenient and I like that people living in remote parts of the world can access courses that they might not otherwise. But I kind of felt like I needed to take a MOOC myself to see what the experience is like.

I signed up for a Stanford course. I’m not going to talk about the specifics of the course here, but the class is A Crash Course in Creativity. (You can click through to learn more about the course.) I’ll write another post about the course when it’s finished, in three more weeks. Mostly I want to write here about my experience so far with this type of course.

So, what do I think of this type of course so far? In short, I don’t like it. I’m as surprised as anyone to be saying this. But you know, finding out first hand what it was like was the purpose of this experiment, so I have to be honest. So I’ll give you my mini-review:

What I like:

  • I like the convenience of accessing the materials whenever I’d like and while I’m sitting on my couch.
  • I like that I don’t have to get in my car, drive, park and schlep to a lecture hall somewhere.
  • Using the interface for the course is intuitive and uploading homework materials is easy.

What I don’t like:

  • I really miss the meaningful interaction in real time. I am one of those people who annoys everyone else in a class because I sit right in the front and I ask a lot of questions. You know how there’s one in every class? Yeah, that’s me. But in the MOOC medium I can’t really do that. I can submit questions in the community forums, but the responses are delayed and, with 14,000 students enrolled in my class, it’s impossible for the instructor to answer all the questions.
  • The other part that has been bothering me is that the technical support isn’t good. I have a problem with my account that I’ve had since week 1. I’ve submitted several requests to technical support for help, but they haven’t responded and now the class is half over. Again, it’s probably an issue having to do with the 14,000 students and scaling the support.
  • There’s no feedback from the instructor on homework assignments. Because there’s no feedback, it’s hard for me to know how to improve my performance. There is feedback from peers, which may provide food for thought, but I want expert feedback.

I’m a pretty motivated learner. I took the course because I was interested not only in taking a MOOC, but in the subject itself. I’ve always been a good student and a hard worker. So for someone like me, at this point in my life and career, a MOOC is probably okay because you get out of it what you put into it. But I’m not so sure that MOOCs would have worked for me in my undergraduate degree. I’m pretty skeptical that so much self-directed learning would have worked for me. The experience feels pretty disconnected to me and I think that is mostly because of the low rate of meaningful responses required of me. I’ve taken programmed learning courses online (in which there is no human interaction to speak of) in which I’ve felt much more connected to the material and the main difference that I can identify is the frequency of relevant responding. Where I end up on this is that while MOOCs may be disruptive, I don’t think they will replace more traditional higher education courses. I think they really need to evolve before they will become a true substitute.

I’m really interested in hearing what you guys have experienced with MOOCs so far. Have you taken one? Have you taught one? What do you think? Huge numbers of students are enrolling, but a large proportion of them don’t finish the courses. What do you think?


About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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1 Response to My First MOOC!

  1. Pingback: Are MOOCs and Competency-Based Learning on a Collision Course? | disrupt learning!

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