I like Massive Open Online Courses. So much so that the standard surveys accompanying the starts or ends of MOOCs usually don’t cover my number of courses taken anymore. MOOCs are, simply put, online educational courses on an undergraduate level that have no entry-requirements and no or low prerequisites. They do not award credit but either a general certificate on an honour basis (sometimes with the option of “distinction”) or a mildly more controlled certificate for pay (the latter of which I find useless, but that is another post entirely.)
MOOCs are not “online education courses” in the sense of continuing education programs or hybrid/full online courses from brick-and-mortar universities. They do not award credit, they have no entry requirements and they have no or very little student/professor interaction and supervision. MOOCs are for the motivated and the curious only. (Which does mean they can be used to show just that, motivation and curiosity – depending on the intended use and discipline, this can be helpful for professionals and future non-traditional students.)
As I mentioned, I always take the surveys that come with the courses and I have participated in studies about the topic as well and in doing so, I have come to a few conclusions:
i) Researchers, no matter how well decorated, have no idea what MOOCs are and why someone might take one.
I had recently participated in a study in which the entire premise (having a pre-conceived conclusion is highly unscientific by the way and make me not trust any social study at all) was so clearly demonstrated, it was painful. The idea (and that seems to be a running theme in normal educational customer surveys too) was that MOOClers take courses to “connect” with others. There were also plenty of questions that made zero sense in a MOOC environment – questions about lecturer-student interaction (“did you feel the lecturer gave you adequate feedback?”) or student-student interaction (“did you feel engaged with any particular student in the course?”).
The assumption that social interactions are either possible or relevant to the student stem obviously from a misunderstanding about what MOOCs are. MOOCs have an average of 20.000 students enrolled (http://www.katyjordan.com/MOOCproject.html), how exactly is a lecturer to engage with all of them? The answer is, s/he isn’t and that’s ok. If a student is interested in real engagement, s/he’ll enroll in continuing education centres or a traditional tertiary facility. MOOClers are interested in a topic, not a person or brand.
Nobody likes peer-assessment either. Forum discussions for points are unpopular. Group-projects are always disastrous. These are sweeping generalizations, I’m aware, but this article is anecdotal.
People do not care what other people think, they care what better-qualified people think.
A MOOCler is rarely an inexperienced and unsure 18 year old. Getting a “neat!” from a fellow student is not going to cut it. A good percentage in a quiz or final is (MOOClers are after self-improvement and new challenges) or positive feedback from a TA (which are the people who usually run the show and who are considered “better-qualified”.)
Let’s just cut the social crap and accept that 20.000 people will not ever be friends. We are here to study, if we want to make buddies, we go to the pub (since we are overwhelmingly legal adults.)
So how to improve MOOCs? Here’s a handy list:
1. Focus on improving the experience.
Static courses are hard to watch. Few courses are filmed in-class (exceptions exist, e.g. the best MOOC on the market: Justice, HarvardX), the vast majority is of lecturers either sitting somewhere or standing somewhere, stoically reading from a script.
There are better ways. I already mentioned the rare in-class session (in which it is important that the microphones are also picking up in-class student conversations or show the white/black board!.)
Especially useful for wordy disciplines, there’s the changing scenery approach. Few have employed this scheme, since it requires better equipment, but it is highly engaging! Most well done award here goes clearly to the University of Copenhagen’s Søren Kierkegaard – Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity on coursera.
Better suited for scientific and technological courses are the use of art, animation or games. The advantages lie in a clearer delivery of concepts and keeping people from tuning out from math-y content. Excellent examples here are:
Art = Astronomy: Discovering the Universe from Curtin University on open2study (Open University Australia)
Animation = The Science of the Solar System by Caltech on coursera
Games = Epidemics – the Dynamics of Infectious Diseases from PennState on coursera.
2. Be sure that your tech equipment, skills and personnel is up to par.
I took a few courses in which the sound was off (too silent, too loud, too inconsistent), the video quality was inadequate, the results of quizzes & co did not show up, comments magically disappeared or tech support deleted entire diary entries.
3. Allow your TAs to kick out students.
Yes, MOOCs are “open” but while everyone gets a cookie at the start, the jar must be emptied if a participant simply doesn’t follow the rules. If a course involves peer-assessment or graded forum posts (it shouldn’t really), and a student does not comply to the language requirement or is aggressive to other student or admits publicly to cheating or is obviously plagiarizing, the student should get the boot.
4. Always offer a free certificate, no matter what.
Simply put: if you don’t, you aren’t an MOOC anymore.
Monetization of MOOCs is not a crime, omitting the first “O” however, is simply unethical.