Monday, August 19, 2013

My MOOC experience: A college dean’s foray into Massive Open Online Courses

TAKING A MOOC: What I thought about
my MOOC experience
Recently, I enrolled in my first Massive Open Online Course -- more commonly called a MOOC. I'm currently in a certificate program, and one of the classes required us to sign up for a MOOC so we could understand how they work. My certificate program colleagues and I weren't required to complete the MOOC, but we had to experience what it was like to take one. And amid the buzz around MOOCs, I had a personal curiosity about what taking a MOOC was like.

I've always been interested in online education -- I enrolled in this certificate program as part of my lifelong learning journey. I also helped launch our online education program here at Peirce in the late 1990's, and continue to guide the direction of our online education program today. Although my experience is just one story you might hear from MOOC students, I wanted to share my perspectives on the value of MOOCs in higher education.

My certificate program gave us a choice of taking two MOOCs -- I chose to enroll in "E-Learning and Digital Cultures." It is offered by Coursera and I had 40,000 classmates. We had five professors from The University of Edinburgh who curated videos and articles for us to watch and read, and then prompted discussion via online discussion boards and Twitter. To engage, participants would post their responses and comment on other people's responses in these forums.

After about a week of participating, I found that 40,000 people trying to participate in such a large-scale discussion was overwhelming, and most of my certificate program classmates agreed. We wanted to see each other's posts and talk about them during our class. But the surplus of participants in the MOOC's online discussion board made it nearly impossible to sift through the comments to see our colleagues' insight on the topics at hand.

I also wanted to see what our five professors had to say in the discussions, which is a crucial part of the online learning experience. However, I wasn't able to find a post from any of the professors in the online discussion boards because the forums were so populated with responses.

The enormous amount of contributors on the discussion boards also made it difficult to cultivate a deep and meaningful conversation. I'd want to respond to another student's comment, but by the time I crafted my answer, 10 others had jumped in, taking the conversation in a different direction. My colleagues in my certificate program class and I felt like many people were speaking, but not enough people were listening.

To overcome this, we decided to take the course materials and question prompts and move them into a separate forum that just our group of 10 could access. It made the experience much more intimate. In this setting, we were able to get into deep discussions on the subject matter and share opinions more freely.

We carried out the rest of the MOOC in our smaller forum, importing materials and questions as they were shared in the original MOOC. I enjoyed being immersed in the different perspectives and ideas of my colleagues, which enabled me to complete my certificate program class. I didn't, however, complete the MOOC's final assessment because my certificate program class ended before the MOOC did.

So to boil it down, here are my three biggest takeaways from my MOOC:
  1. The professors curated fantastic material that was very informative and interesting. I really enjoyed the articles and videos that were presented as part of the course, and felt they were a springboard for conversation.
  2. It was almost impossible to receive insight from the professors, as all assignments were peer-reviewed and it was difficult to contact them directly. However, the professors did host three Google Hangouts during the MOOC, where they shared their opinions on the course materials and students wrote questions they had in a comment box. The professors addressed some questions, but as you might imagine, with thousands of inquiries, they couldn't get to all of them.
  3. Online discussion boards were difficult to navigate and didn't foster true discussion and engagement from participants. In my opinion, there were just too many students involved to cultivate enlightening conversation about the subject matter, despite the quality of the materials provided.
I've discussed before how MOOCs differ from online classes offered by colleges and universities. From my MOOC experience, I stand by my original statement that MOOCs aren't a replacement for an online class offered by a college or university. Qualities such as high faculty engagement, small class sizes, 24-hour tech support, and a multitude of student support services are typically only found with online classes offered by colleges and universities. This structure is the optimal environment for students who want to continue their education to earn their college degree.

However, from my experience, I do believe that MOOCs have a place in the education industry. The first is that MOOCs can help you prepare to "test out" of a college course. Many colleges and universities, including Peirce, offer students the opportunity to test out of select courses if you can prove that you're already proficient in the subject matter by taking an exam.

For example, say your college or university requires that you take a class in Microsoft Office before you can move on to more advanced business courses, but offers a test-out option if you can demonstrate you're proficient with Office. You can take a MOOC to help brush up on your skills to better prepare for your exam.

In addition, I think MOOCs can be a great way to build your knowledge across various topics. It could be something you're already interested in, or a new topic you want to explore. And MOOCs can help you build your network with people who have similar interests or are in your field.

Overall, I enjoyed my MOOC experience and I'd probably take another one on another topic that I'm interested in. I wouldn't expect to get three credits worth of knowledge from it-like I would a college course-but I would hope to discover some new ideas on my lifelong learning journey.