Reflections upon completing a MOOC

I am currently working on a project researching the use of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) so I thought it would be useful to try one for myself to find out what they can be like for a learner. I chose an open course from one of the major providers on a subject of personal interest to me (photography). Here are a few of my early thoughts.

Before I go any further it is probably best to define a MOOC. It can be a very vague term but the key features of a MOOC appear to be:

  • It is online
  • It can incorporate short videos and activities
  • Learners can access help via an online forum
  • It can include peer mentoring and assessment

I think the crucial aspect of a MOOC is the opportunity it offers dispersed learners to work together to meet their learning needs. This is the Massive part. It is the end-user interaction that is important as it gives the learner to opportunity to learn from the content but also from their peers.

End-user interaction is a crucial characteristic of a MOOC
The earliest MOOCs were developed in conjunction with large academic institutions and were open to all. More recently there has been a move towards creating MOOCs for corporations and other closed institutions. The course I took was one of the former run in conjunction with MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art. It was for personal use (the subject was the art of photography) so unlike a professional course there may be different issues surrounding motivation and completion (typically only 4% of participants complete a public MOOC). Having said that the organisers of the event had many efforts to keep the participants engaged both before the programme and throughout.

These included a welcome email which apart from offering practical information on accessing the course, also helped build anticipation so encouraging the learner to buy into the course and retain their motivation. The welcome email included useful information on how to stay the course such as inviting a friend to complete it with you, and sharing your progress on social media. Secondly, the course itself was relatively short (six weeks) and really only required about an hour’s commitment each week. Having said that, there was additional reading the learner to uncover more about the subject. Finally there was a good mix of materials to keep the learner engaged such as videos, podcasts and a live webchat.

The programme consisted of three parts: the actual content which included text, videos and slide shows; a discussion forum; and assessments.

The content could be viewed on different devices and the videos could be downloaded to my iPad. However different technology was needed to make some of the content work – there was a mobile and desktop friendly versions of the slideshows (and the former didn’t always work).

The first week of the discussion forum was an opportunity for the participants to introduce themselves. It was a bit intimidating on day one to view the empty discussion forum (there was no input from the moderator at this point) and wonder what I should say. Eventually someone else beat me to it. In later weeks the discussion was more directed with a specific question being asked. I noted that there appeared to be less interaction between the participants at this stage. The questions could encourage lengthy responses and it was possible that others found it difficult to reply in an appropriate manner.

The third part of the programme was the assessment. Whilst participation in the weekly discussions was optional the learner could not proceed without completing each week’s assessment. The programme included a process to identify the learner completing the assessment, in this case using my webcam and keyboard strokes. The questions themselves were very often little more than a memory test so I quite quickly got into the habit of going straight to the assessment, printing the screen and having it by my side as I worked through the rest of the content.

So the key things I got out of the programme (apart from new perspectives on looking at photographs) was that:

  • There needs to be a process of building anticipation beforehand to encourage motivation.
  • Some means of accountability needs to be encouraged to maximise completion. In this case it was about doing the course with a friend. In an educational or work environmental this could equate to fellow students or work colleagues.
  • The content needs to work across different platforms successfully.
    The purpose of discussion forums needs to be considered carefully. In week one they were a chat facility – in later weeks they were more a means of submitting short essays.
  • If multiple choice questions are used the wording of the questions needs to be thought about to avoid them simply being a memory test