HYELN 2013: Reflections on the MOOC experience


Posted on behalf of Richard Walker and incorporating notes from David Barrett

Reflections on the MOOC experience (Martell Linsdell & Rob Hardy – York St John) was both an interesting and informative presentation, focusing on the speakers’ experiences participating on Edinburgh University’s E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC, which was recently delivered as part of the Coursera portfolio of open courses.

Being a MOOC alumnus myself I was interested in the experiences that Martell and Rob had encountered and the value that they derived from the experience. One of their key messages about the MOOC experience is that it’s not about getting a qualification, in fact as the courses are ‘open’ and peer- assessed, they are incomparable with formal qualifications; it’s a source of information or point of reference, and sometimes an opportunity to interact. A participant may drop out of the course but that should not be viewed as a measure of failure/success.

Enrolment should be viewed like browsing a book in a library, an act of exploration before deciding whether to commit to the book and take it home to read.

Rob and Martell went on to highlight some practical lessons learned from their experience, on what it takes to reach the end of a MOOC course and complete the accreditation. Aside from access to fast broadband and basic technical competencies in handling the social media tools, they also needed to get to grips with a new style of learning. Reflecting on the Edinburgh MOOC, they spent up to 16 hours per week on study activities – far more than the advertised workload of 5-7 hours per week, and were often torn between focusing on the social side of course participation  – engaging with their peers, as opposed to fulfilling  the course requirements (covering the reading of key texts). Although Coursera has a reputation for producing ‘x-type’ MOOCS which are based on highly structured learning pathways (video lectures and individual study tasks focusing on the mastery of targeted course concepts), the Edinburgh MOOC was connectivist in design (a ‘c-type’ MOOC), inviting students to use social media to build their own learning networks to think critically and creatively about e-learning as a process and to explore their own learning objectives. This had an impact on the level of engagement and time commitment that was involved in the learning experience. The range of communication channels (Google hangouts, Google Plus) and volume of messages produced can appear overwhelming, and Rob and Martell both underwent a learning curve in getting to grips with the volume of information and their strategies for participation through the various channels for interaction.  It is questionable whether this exploratory design approach promotes a surface level approach to the learning, with students struggling to keep track with the volume of messaging and opinion, rather than focusing on the reading itself.

For someone new to higher education and e-learning, this could be quite overwhelming and to thrive on this course it requires a fair amount of self-management and commitment to complete all the study activities. Certainly there is not a safety net provided by the MOOC programme team to ensure that students remain on track. From an initial enrolment of 42,844 participants, 21,862 went on to engage with the course and 1,719 fully completed the course and final assessment.

A fair degree of tolerance is also needed with the accompanying assessment for the course   -there is no expert review of student work – outputs are all peer assessed and highly subjective, which led to quibbles over the fairness of the process.

On a positive note though the MOOC community still lives on, with a Goodreads community thriving online, which is a demonstrable measure of success for the course in establishing a sustainable learning network.

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