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

Creating good out of bad

Last week I attended the Virtual Patients Symposium, “We Are Our Choices” in London. This brought together participants across Europe and the world involved in a number of projects regarding online learning in the medical sector. The latest of these is called WAVES (Widening Access to Virtual Educational Scenarios), a project I am involved with. It brings together academic and enterprise partners to make scenario based learning more accessible for a wide range of professions. You can find out more about the WAVES project at

The symposium covered a range of topics with a number of interesting speakers across the medical spectrum. This posting is my reflections on the main theme of the symposium, scenario based learning, and on some of the issues that could prevent it happening.

What is scenario based learning?

Scenario based learning presents the learner with a simulation of a real life experience to allow them to gain the relevant skills and information which they can use when they are presented with the same or similar situations in their work. The learning could be delivered in a number of ways, for example in a classroom or online (the focus of the WAVES project), and is placed in context to make it easier to engage with and to commit to memory for future use.

Scenario based learning techniques are widely recognised as a key tool in the educational toolkit, for safe training in competency and decision-making.

The Elearning industry website has a great introductory blog on the subject (

Error based learning

Scenario based learning is learning from your mistakes

Another definition of scenario based learning is to think of it as error based learning – learning from your mistakes – this was a key theme of the conference. One of the speakers gave a stark insight into the medical world. Doctors will kill patients. Throughout her working day a doctor has to make numerous decisions on the cases she sees. These will branch ever outwards into different directions. Some of those directions could lead to the death of a patient. So scenario based learning, allowing people to make errors in a safe environment such as a classroom or online and learn from them, can be crucial. This is the case not just for the medical profession but for other fields as well.

Barriers to Scenario Based Learning

However, with error comes failure which can be hard to come to terms with. Some people are more likely to fear failure than others.

As part of the WAVES project I interviewed a number of people about their experiences of scenario based learning. I was struck by a comment made by one interviewee that he felt younger people had a greater acceptance of failure than older people. It was just a hunch on his part and I have no data to prove it or otherwise. However, it was raised again during the conference. A YouTube video was shown of a five-year-old child playing a shoot ’em up game. He is momentarily distraught when he loses a life but soon bounces back to start “killing” again. It could be that younger people, more used to gaming, are happier to fail in virtual environments.

One of the reasons for fearing failure is the shame they will experience as a result. This may be an age issue but it could also be cultural, whether at a country level (with some delegates suggesting this was a particular problem in their country) or at an organisational level. One delegate from a corporation suggested this was an issue where he worked. In healthcare, the focus of this conference, it was suggested there has been a culture of not admitting that errors occur. This could make it harder to implement scenario based learning which has at its heart, permission to fail in a safe environment.


So, given the challenges, how do we embed scenario based learning into an organization? Over the next two to three years, the WAVES project will research the field and come up with some ideas that will be helpful for the learner, the trainer or educator, and the technologist implementing the solutions. In the meantime, the conference looked at cultural changes that needed to happen so that error could be seen as normal, to be learned from and moved on from.

Encouraging people to recycle their errors and make good out of bad

One suggestion was to provide regular opportunities for people to reflect on their day to day work and any mistakes made, to encourage them how to “recycle” errors, and, as one speaker said, to make good out of bad.

It is a big ask but it is something that needs to happen in critical fields such as the medical and health sector.

More about the WAVES project

If you would like to know more about the WAVES project please visit or get in touch with me.

We have also been collecting data about people’s experiences about scenario based learning (and MOOCs – another focus of the project). The survey is still open for a short while if you would like to add your views (