Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Give MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) a Try

Last week, I finished my first MOOC. No, it is not a sound a sick cow makes, rather it's a Massive Open Online Course  MOOCs are different from other online courses in that they are open. Open in that they are free to take and open to anyone, no perquisites required. Massive in that their free status tends to attract a very large number of students - with diverse backgrounds, locations, and subject-matter knowledge.

My experience is limited, but from talking to others who have taken MOOCs, I have a sense of their structure and purposes.

MOOCs tend to run for a more limited timeframe than traditional university classes (online or offline) - often for four to six weeks, sometimes at a self-study pace. The MOOC I took would require anywhere from 20 to 40 hours to complete (depending on one's prior familiarity with the topic and one's language and technical skills).  The course was pass / fail - which I also believe is common for MOOCs - but credit could be applied to a program at the university offering it (I'm not sure if this is common).

MOOCs use an e-Learning platform. The MOOC I took used Desire2Learn, but Moodle and Coursera are also popular options. All the e-learning platforms are similar in that they offer a web-based interface for the instructor to posts text-based notes or readings, lecture videos,  forum style discussion boards for students to post questions to the instructor or fellow students, and online quizzes.

E-leaning is one of the areas I consult on and I have blogged a lot about this already (see my prior posts on e-learning).  For this post, I'll focus on the differences between MOOCs and online courses generally.

All the challenges I have identified with e-learning are present and often compounded with MOOCs (e.g., lack of presence of instructor and students, minimal interactions, etc.). There are the same benefits too (e.g., distance and time barriers removed), but the benefits are not as many

From an institution perspective, MOOCs are a good marketing opportunity. It is a way to introduce prospective students in a low risk environment to programs and faculty. It is also a great way to disseminate knowledge for altruistic reasons. From a student perspective, the selling point of MOOCs is their price - free. You can't beat free!

Did I mention free? But there are other advantages beside the price or lack thereof.

Despite attending one of the largest universities in Canada, I haven't taken a lot of courses on my research interests at my home school as there hasn't been courses on my exact subject matter offerred. Considering the large number of universities and colleges worldwide offering MOOCs, one can choose from a large number of schools, which makes it likely you'll find a relevant course for you somewhere.This gives one access to an exciting array of schools and professors not limited by location country or cost.

I also like that the class I took was pass or fail (i.e., no grades) - with the opportunity to redo any tests that were failed. This meant that I could focus on learning for learning sake and not for the primary reason of getting a good grade (which is ruining education at all levels). It was really refreshing and rewarding to take such a class.

I also loved how my course combined the standard e-learning techniques (i.e. online reading and multiple choice tests) with applied projects in applicable software. As so much software in any field is online now, it is great to be able to combine theory with hands-one experience in one course. We used a trial version of the software, so we got access to mainstream, premium software for no cost!

As MOOCs are designed, I believe, primarily to be a marketing tool for universities and thus reach a wide and large array of prospective students, the material tends to be at a general level.  The course I completed had students from all levels of academic backgrounds. So one is studying with people with no post-secondary education to PhD students and working professionals in the field to absolute newbies. There are also many students from various countries with differing levels of technical and English skills (from almost none to proficient in both). So to design a course around such divergent skills and backgrounds is difficult. Thus the first few modules in my course was way too basic for anyone at an undergraduate level or above. This wasn't a huge problem as I could breeze through those and by the final few modules the material was much more insightful and helpful.

The diversity of the students would also be a great way to meet and interact with other people interesting in the same topics, yet MOOCs in being "massive" and for a short duration don't provide any feasible means for students to meet and engage with one another.

I also have gripes about people who don't read the FAQs and post stupid questions to the forum, but that's people for you. Because the class was free, there were times when the class felt like it was third-rate - there were lots of typos and  poor quality material at times. I realize one gets what one pays for - but from an institutional, marketing perspective it defeats the MOOCs purpose to be perceived as second or third rate.

Overall,  however, my experience was really good. I'm sold on MOOCs. In fact, I start another MOOC next week!