MOOCs – 9 points on what I like, and what I don’t

Over two years ago I wrote about a few experiences I’d had with some online courses / MOOCs, and why I ‘failed’ (according to the general headline figures of engagement, attendance, etc. that are used in mainstream press).

I want to revisit this, in light of more experience in both designing MOOCs and being a student on them.

Disclaimer: This is based on courses I’ve taken on the FutureLearn, Coursera, Cloudworks, EdX, and WordPress (OcTEL) platforms. I also highlight whether is was a student on the course, or part of the development team.

1. Comments and Engagement: For the most part I’ve been a silent students. This is both deliberate and accidental. Where it’s been a deliberate choice to not engage in the comments and discussion it’s been because I knew I didn’t have the time or inclination to trawl through the hundreds of fairly uninteresting posts to add my two-pennies worth or find the one nugget of insight that is worth anything. It’s also because, for some courses, I didn’t have enough interest to take my engagement further.

Example – World War 1: Aviation comes of Age. (learner) A wonderfully rich and interesting subject, I’ve always loved flying and it’s history. From visits to Farnborough and Yeovilton Fleet Air Arm Museum as a kid to taking my own boys to air shows (and hopefully next year on their first flight). The course was brilliantly put together with a great use of archive resources from the BBC with interviews, audio and video, from surviving pilots and workers from the factories. However, I started to get really annoyed as almost every step asked for a comment, an opinion, feedback, etc. on the video or piece to be read. And that was before the discussion steps. And then there was the ‘how is it going so far?’ step at the end of each week! Too much, sorry!

2. Video: I have found the quality of video to be, for the most part, excellent on all the courses (especially the ones I’ve worked on [wink]). But its not always necessary. A 90 second clip of someone introducing the weekly topic and wider context of the subject is really useful, but a 30 second clip of someone reading a quote or abstract from the paper we’ve been asked to read is pointless. The actual content of the videos are also varied and really interesting, but there are some examples of green-screen is over used.

Example – Shakespeare and His World (developer). Amazing use of on-location filming with the rarely-seen and non-public archives and collections of Shakespeare artefacts. With Prof Jonathan Bate showing, and sometimes holding, the artefacts he is able to bring the topic and people to life.

Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and his World

Example – eLearning and Digital Cultures (learner). This course offered a great many examples of videos to watch that supported the ‘digital cultures’ element but, as I’ve written about before, the ‘elearning’ was greatly reduced. However, the beauty of these courses is the crowd-sources and student-led curation of content, and this video was a great example of what is already out there, if you know where to look.  Of course, the online, open courses can only use publicly accessible videos available on Vimeo or YouTube. Oh, if only we could use Box of Broadcasts!!

The Future is Ours from Michael Marantz on Vimeo.

Example – Forensic Science and Criminal Justice (developer). Very few videos were used on this course, and those that are ‘video’ steps were just narrated PowerPoint slides. The rest of the course was made up of 20 or so audio clips, between 4-8 minutes long. These were excellent produced, great quality, and well received. We also made them available for download (before the download option was available in FutureLearn) from a DropBox folder. It just goes to show that you don’t have to have high-end video content for a course to be successful and engaging.

3. Platform: I haven’t found one platform yet that I actually like. There is plenty about each platform that works, and sometimes works well, but there’s either too much white space, unwieldy navigation, poor layout, to much scrolling, etc. If the platform is important to the feeling of security and understanding, in order to relax the student into their learning, then can something be done about the platform to facilitate this?

4. Weeks: (also see ‘hours’, below) Short courses are obviously easier to fit into my life, but even a 6 week course sounds OK, not too long. But so much can happen in any 6 week course … not to mention the 2 months that has passed between signing up for it and the thing actually starting! Ensuring the content is relevant in each week is also key to the course being, for me as a learner, successful and worth my time.

5. Terminology: I’m sure the academics are very good, and very knowledgeable. But can you please direct the terminology to the level of learner engagement or study. If it’s a subject course that people are likely to take where they have little or no understanding of already, then using advanced or complex terminology (without proper and adequate explanation) will not help them understand you or the course materials.

6. Hours: Which is better, a short course (2-4 weeks) with a high hourly requirement (4-8 hours per week) or a longer course (6+ weeks) with lower hourly requirement (2-4 hours per week)? Ideally I’d go for a shorter course with the lower expected study hours, but that’s because I’m busy. But hey, aren’t we all? I know that FutureLearn, and probably others, are looking at a portfolio of shorter courses, from a single or multiple providers, and that would suit me as a learner far better.

I realise that some courses, more in-depth or detailed courses, even ones aimed at higher levels of study, will have higher study expectations. But just to get it right on the course overview page is enough. The Edinburgh eLearning and Digital Futures course was originally flagged as (and I forget the ‘exact’ number) 3-5 hours per week, but myself and many others on the course were actively engaging in 10+ hours, just to keep up.

7. Expected engagement: If you highlight the course as being as an introduction to the subject, then the materials should be fairly lightweight and not require degree-level understanding. Also, if you say the course is ideally 3-5 hours per week, and I spend 10+ just to keep up (as was the case with the first run of the Edinburgh/Coursera Digital Futurees course) then you’ve really under-estimated the level (again) and requirement of the course.

8. Links, related reading PDFs: I don’t mind having materials available to me that are flagged as ‘essential’ or ‘suggested’, but please monitor these and keep the lists manageable? One or two links are fine, 6 or 7 tells me either the basic course is too basic, or you can’t decide how much is too much, or too little.

Example – World War 1: Aviation comes of Age (learner). Some of the related links are to video content that learners have pointed out are not available to non-UK learners. I don’t know what proportion of the course this relates to, but that’s a big design flaw in my book. Having a link to further reading or other interested materials is good, in fact you could argue it’s essential for those who are interested in more than just the bare-essentials on the course. Having 5 or 6 doesn’t work for me, it’s just too much – how do I know which ones are going to be best for me. Keep it simple, please.

9. MOOC futures: I still like the ability to join and leave these courses when I want, and really only see the downside of MOOCs as being when the courses run. It may suit the platform provider to have the course run when it fits their portfolio, or the partner institution and when the lead academic is available, but that may not suit me?

Mind you, is this a downside of the MOOC platform and the design of the course (the dreaded engagement with fellow learners again) that limits the course to run between two fixed dates -can’t the materials just be online, running all the time, and I be added to a group/cohort that started this week? Admittedly I could be in a group of 5 or 500, depending on so many factors, but at least I had the flexibility to learn what I wanted, when I wanted.

Anyway, there are my thoughts. I am still looking to the future where online learning ‘works’, for me. I have yet to find a single experience where I am truly engaged and happy – perhaps I need to find a course I really really want to do, and pay for it. Is the value to my learning linked to the impact on my wallet, and therefore perception of value of learning. Will I be more inclined to stick it out and not give up? I know I made more effort for my CMALT portfolio and submission because I could see the value to my development, profile, and employability … is a direction MOOCs need to take, a defined and deliberate link to specific development criteria, either from industry association or other such accreditation body?

(Bonus) 10. Email updates: Emails sent to me as one of the learners, or rather those registered for the course, thanking me for my participation and the quality of the engaging conversation. But I haven’t said anything. In fact I’ve not logged in to the platform since I signed up to the course. I don’t mind about the email but please don’t presume that I have been involved. Perhaps the platform needs to be able to distinguish between those engaging and those not?

Image source: Gisela Giardino (CC BY-SA 2.0)