MOOCS seem to be talked about by everyone these days. Just what is a MOOC? Basically, it stands for Massive Open Online Course. It’s a free course that’s held totally online across the world. Literally anyone can sign up for a MOOC course. There are lots of debates about the principle of Connectivism which underlies many MOOCs and this article isn’t about that. This article is a personal reflective account of my time spent doing a MOOC course which I thought might be interesting for others thinking about MOOCs.

So in preparation for writing this article I signed up to a free course held through one of the larger companies providing MOOCs. I chose a topic that was of personal interest and I decided to do most of the course during my own time. The course time was 12 weeks but as we’ll see I didn’t complete the course (more of that later on). Lets look at the course itself via different categories.

Administration

Signing up was very painless. I simply provided a name, email address and password. There was also a check box to say that I agreed to the terms of service and the honour code. I didn’t actually read either of these which is probably not recommended to do. When I came to write this article article I thought I’d better have a quick read of the terms and conditions which are long and extensive and so again I didn’t get to the end. Ignoring this aspect, I would say administration was easy.

Course Selection

Once I had signed up, I was presented with a  list of courses to choose from. Each course was displayed in terms of title, lecturer names, start date and duration. I picked a couple of courses that sounded interesting. Clicking on a course gave you a more detailed breakdown of the course content. This included what was expected from you, and what prior knowledge you either needed or would be beneficial. There were sorting and filtering options provided to help you manage the very long list of courses. Once you clicked on the option to sign up to a course that was it. Even for those courses that listed some criteria there was no extra checks – which emphasised the Code of Honour clause. When signed up you could leave a course at any time with a single click.

Course Layout

I dipped into several courses to compare and they all had a very similiar look and feel. On the left hand side of the page was a menu of options – such as Announcements, Lesson Material, Discussion Boards and so on. In the middle of the page was the actual content depending on whereabouts in the course you were. On the right hand side was a list of recent events – such as new video lectures being available. Overall, I would say the course layout was clean, uncluttered and relatively easy to navigate. For those of you familiar with Blackboard, it had a very similiar look and feel. There was minimal use of graphics and imagery. Instead, the layout seemed to focus on pure text.

Course Content 

The course was structured in the following format. This was the structure for each and every week – no variation.

  1. At the start of the week you were given a short video which introduced the topic of that week.
  2. You were then expected to go away and read and reflect on the material.
  3. Once you had read through the expected books/articles you were then asked to write a short essay, with a strict word count of 270 to 320 words.
  4. After the deadline for submission had passed, you were then presented with four articles written by other members of the course.
  5. You then marked the articles based on set criteria. This included a scoring rubric and some comments/suggestions/notes you felt appropriate.
  6. After the deadline for this peer review had passed, more videos were released going into far greater detail about the work. Each video was typically 5 to 15 minutes long, with a very high production quality. This included multiple camera angles, clear sound, smooth streaming and generally a very professional appearance.
  7. After the peer review deadline was passed you were presented with what others had thought of your article – both the notes and the score.

Discussion Board

Something worth noting was the discussion board. To begin with, the activity on the board was frantic with comments and threads going up at a very fast pace. Topics ranged from almost anything – people’s interests in the course, their feelings about a particular author, their results from peer review and so on. As the course progressed there was a notable drop off in discussion board activity. Could this have been a result of the much documented drop off rate, or was it indicative that people no longer were confused about what to do with the course?

Reflections

On the whole, the course was very professional to look at. Each week there was a pre-determined structure giving people a sense of knowing what to expect. There was some confusion in the first week about the content of the essays (as evidenced through the discussion board) but very soon people got into the swing of it and the comments on the board veered more towards the materials themselves.

The pace of the course was intense. You were given a reading list at the beginning of the course (along with web links for where to find the material if possible) which in hindsight should have given me the indication that maybe I should have been more pro-active and started reading earlier rather than waiting for each week before starting on that week’s topic.

The initial frenzy of activity on the discussion board also overwhelmed me. In the past, I have always tried to read every article – just in case! This was simply not possible. In the end I picked a few threads that I was interested in. Subscriptions was possible, which made it very easy to keep track of the conversations. If you contributed to a thread, you were automatically subscribed to that thread. Upon returning to the discussion board, any threads you had taken part were displayed at the top of the page.

People talked about signing up to a Facebook group to discuss the content further but I personally declined this route. It felt there was more than enough to keep me occupied without a further source of debates and discussions.

The word length was something I reflected on. As a student, it certainly made me think about the points I was trying to get across in order to condense and distill my thought process. After a few weeks I started to get into the swing of writing finely honed prose (well, in my mind it was!) I wondered if there was another purpose to having a short word count. With less text to read, could this make it easier for those reviewing work to read online? Either way, I felt it worked.

There were lots of people uncertain/confused about the peer marking/review aspect of the course. All my peer review comments were well made, polite, articulate and interesting. It would seem that other people on the course weren’t so lucky and there were constant discussions about lack of professionalism and respect with regards to peer review comments.  At one point in the course, the Professor had to step in to send out a message asking people to review things in a respectful manner so I can only guess that there were a few people abusing the system.

In the first weeks, there were constant reminders regarding certification. Whilst the course was free, for a small fee (well, $70 or so) you could get a certificate to say you had completed the course. This wasn’t pushed – I didn’t get any pushy emails reminding me of this. However, there was a steady reference to this accreditation that was available and I wonder how many people paid the fee to get it.

Conclusions

I’m embarrassed to say I dropped out. The pace of the course started off relatively moderately (with the focus being on short stories) but quickly escalated (to having to read an analyse one full length novel per week). I simply didn’t have the time to read the source material let alone reflect on it and write a short essay. Despite dropping out the whole MOOC experience was a very interesting one. The quality of the videos (which was the majority of the “presented” material) was of a very high standard. The infrastructure of the system to be able to handle potentially thousands of students at any one time was also impressive. Peer view was a massive part of the course. From a personal perspective, I enjoyed the peer review but I couldn’t help but wish for some feedback from the professor running the course. Obviously, this is not even feasible (taking into consideration that each course could have thousands of students) and I had to keep reminding myself of this shift from what I would consider a traditional delivery to the connectivist approach of MOOCs.

Would I take part in a MOOC again? Certainly. For one thing, they are free. For another, based on my experience, the material presented was of a very high quality. Finally, even though I consider myself to have been lucky with regards to the peer review, I most definitely benefited from the critique and commentary from my peers. The only downside was the intensity of the material delivery. Maybe when I’ve got a bit more free time I’ll have another bash at a course. I think next time I might try something a little less text heavy – children’s illustrations anyone?

 

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