How was it for you? Thinking about MOOCs

On Monday I completed a MOOC. Applaud if you feel like it.

In fact yes, do applaud. Completion rates for the MOOC or Massive(ly) Open Online Course, according to which figures you believe, are between 2% and 10%. So I’m in quite select company.

However, this is probably more to do with the quality and design of the MOOC than my staying power. For I have also been a MOOC non-completer. And here’s why.

I signed up for my first MOOC with the best intentions. It sounded great. A video to watch every week in which an author would speak about a particular aspect of writing fiction, an online community to chat in, and writing exercises to do. I watched the convenors’ short introductory video.

Then I watched the first week’s video. It was at least 30 minutes long. It was filmed in front of the same bookshelf as the convenors’ video. I think there was one talking head, then another, without accompanying slides. My attention wandered. I started trying to make out the titles of the books on the shelves. I didn’t use the chat function because I was too busy trying to attend to what was being said. I didn’t do the exercise which had been set, because it was optional and it didn’t appeal to me (I can’t even remember what it was).

I may have made it through the second week’s video. I’m not sure. None of it has stayed with me.

The second, completed MOOC is called The Secret Power of Brands, and is delivered by the University of East Anglia via FutureLearn. It presents a mix of short videos, usually interviews or roundtables, short narrated slideshows, articles and reports over a 6-week period. The FutureLearn platform is constructed to show you, in big friendly numbers, what you have completed, and what you have left to do, that week and in the course overall. Each week has either a practical exercise, where you apply that week’s learning to a company of your choice, or a short peer-assessed assignment.

Reflecting on the two MOOCs, it occurred to me that MOOC 1 reminded me just a little of attending lectures as an undergraduate. My undergrad years were 1992-5, and we all showed up to the lecture theatre with lined A4 pads and biros and scribbled notes while one of the faculty talked about Keats or medieval mystery plays or TS Eliot. If we were lucky they might use the overhead projector with some acetates, or play a film clip. Some of the lectures were brilliant; I can still remember bits now. Others were not. It was a world away from my MOOC 2 experience, but there wasn’t an alternative. We still handwrote essays, and communicated with our tutors via their pigeonholes.

One of the things my workplace, Health Education North West, is focusing on is transforming the learning environment. Last year our Director for Education and Quality blogged about how we tend to concentrate on the curriculum, not the learning environment, when looking at improving the quality of the learning experience. For me, the difference between MOOCs 1 and 2  illustrates the effect of considering the learning environment and the circumstances of the learner. Why try to replicate a lecture online when there are so many other ways to deliver content and get learners participating?


I’m aware that completing MOOCs isn’t the only reason to sign up for one, and that lots of students dip into MOOCs for a specific bit of knowledge, or as a taster. Some arguments on this basis can be found at http://harvardx.harvard.edu/news/learner-intention and http://www.forbes.com/sites/ccap/2014/09/16/moocs-finishing-is-not-the-important-part/ 

The featured image is Learning is Hanging Out by Alan Levine, and is shared by permission of Creative Commons license 2.0.

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