What's in a MOOC? Part I

Posted Oct 16, 2013 by Guy Larkin

It’s autumn, and for many people the change of seasons brings on a pavlovian desire to be in school. Fortunately for those people, we live in fantastic times. Many of the world’s top schools are actually giving away a little piece of education via the Internet. These classes, called MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses), are distributed by companies such as Coursera and NovoEd (Udacity, my current favorite, has a slightly different model), who work with top-tier institutions to create the video lectures and online quizzes that are ultimately consumed by the learning-starved masses.

So what’s it like to actually take one? I have now personally participated in many MOOCs, with varying levels of commitment and completion. I have some very specific thoughts and analyses of this trend, but that will have to wait for another time. Right now, I really just want to tell you, the MOOC novice, what it’s like to be a MOOC student.

Day One:  Excitement! Hurray, it’s finally the first day of the class I registered for weeks ago! I can’t wait to dig into the material and get started! Why can’t I login? That’s strange; the class isn’t available yet. Is something wrong? I got an email reminder just yesterday. I’ll re-read that, maybe I wrote it down wrong…nope, it’s today, at…10pm Pacific Time? Oh. (Checking clock). Sigh. I guess I’ll get started tomorrow, then. No way I’m watching a lecture tonight.

Day Two: Finally! Here we go…oh. Week 1. What we’re going to cover: “Why the professor is doing the course”; “How to earn a certificate of completion”; “The school doesn’t make any representation about the value of the course or actual learning”— blah, blah, blah. Okay, so the real lectures start…at 10pm Pacific Time a week from yesterday. Can’t wait.

Maybe I’m being a little harsh. That’s not always how it goes, just often enough that any MOOC-takers out there probably chuckled in recognition. I’ll spare you the running diary from here on out. I’m sure you’re much more interested in what the lectures are like and what it’s really like to be a student in one of these “classes”.

Generally speaking, they are a lot like college lecture courses. That is, a professor talks a lot and gives reading assignments. The video lectures are interrupted by “pop quizzes” to check if you are actually learning anything. It’s a pretty passive learning experience for the most part. If you look back at high school or college and remember that you were really bored in lecture-style classes, then be forewarned: MOOCs are not for the faintly motivated.

When you’re in school, you generally know that on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10:30am, for example, you have to show up to get your regularly scheduled dose of instruction. When you’re in a MOOC, you have to show up for class…before the deadline. Usually a week after the lecture was posted. So there’s a lot of time and self-management required, which means you need to be really, really interested in the topic or really motivated to get that certificate of completion. Even if it’s meaningless to potential employers.

There’s also a lot of reading. Usually, there’s some sort of text to go with the class, but in my experience, the assigned reading is pretty light. What is really time consuming is reading through all the posts associated with the class. In an attempt to create student engagement on the subject at hand, many classes now require that you participate in an online class forum. If you’ve participated in these before, you know there’s a lot of noise through which you have to filter.

Anyone who’s logged onto Facebook “for a few minutes” usually discovers that it’s pretty easy to kill a couple of hours a night sifting through topics, and posting or replying to the ones in which you’re interested. Most of the MOOCs I’ve taken have less than three hours of lectures a week. So the class forums can actually take up more of your time than the course lectures, if you let them. And there are TAs monitoring forum activity. The penalty for not participating? Your certificate level is downgraded, which goes on your “permanent record”.

In my next post I’ll discuss what it’s like to actually engage with fellow MOOC students, grade peers’ assignments—a big part of the MOOC model—and whether or not I’d take a MOOC again. Stay tuned!

Photo courtesy of Lynn Friedman.

Guy Larkin is a recent MBA graduate of Hult International Business School looking for opportunities to apply design thinking and service thinking to business problems. He is also the father of two curious and ravenous children.

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