Life Inside a MOOC

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student using tablet - Ashford University

I wanted to see for myself what a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) looks like, how it works, and how the experience differs from that of other online courses I’ve taken. So I signed up for eLearning and Digital Cultures, a MOOC created by a group of professors at The University of Edinburgh (Jeremy Knox, Sian Bayne, Hamish Macleod, Jen Ross, and Christine Sinclair) and offered for free through Coursera.

I received emails with instructions on how to enroll. The first email message was quite long. In it, I found instructions for finding the course’s Facebook group and the group in Google+. There’s also a helpful hashtag to follow along on Twitter. They even invited me to blog about the course and have my blog included in the course’s aggregator. Finally, I was invited to a Google Hangout with the teaching team.

That was a lot of information to digest on the first day, before I’d even logged in. The course designers assume a certain level of familiarity with social media, which some students might lack.

eLearning and Digital Cultures is only one of many MOOCs available through Coursera and other schools. Each MOOC on Coursera is designed by different people from different universities. The one that I chose is just one example. Therefore, I cannot claim that this one MOOC accurately represents all MOOCs everywhere. But I hope that my observations will be useful to those who are curious about this medium of education.

On the class website, I can find just about everything I need. It’s a lot of text on a plain white page. It reminds me of a Wikipedia article, but with a thousand people around the world commenting on it.

What is eLearning and Digital Cultures all about? I have to scan down a couple of paragraphs, but eventually I find what looks like a sort of topic. It talks about how we will explore the benefits and drawbacks of technology in today’s culture. Presumably, the impact of technology on education will be included in this conversation.

In the discussion threads, I quickly found out why the M stands for “Massive.” At one point, I counted more than 200 student threads from which to choose to respond. I have no idea how anyone navigates so much content. At a loss for where to begin, I started clicking and reading at random.

A lot of my fellow students are living in various countries around the world. As a result, they post in a wide spectrum of English spelling and grammar. For the most part, their responses are informed and intelligent, though extremely brief. Only the occasional post goes much longer than three or four sentences.

There are no tests or homework. The only assignment that counts is to create what they call a “digital artifact,” which “expresses, for you, something important about one or more of the themes we have covered during the course.” The only requirements are that the final project “be experienced digitally, on the web” using text, image, or sound in some combination.

The professors who created this MOOC do not grade your final project. Instead, it is our fellow students who assess our digital artifacts. This egalitarian grading system is a crucial feature of the MOOC concept as it is designed for growth in thinking, not grades.

Finally, there are no stated learning outcomes. That’s not an oversight. The point is not to reach a specific goal or learning outcome. The purpose is to collaborate, to explore together, and to see what we find. Thus, the beauty and opportunity of MOOCs is to bring together a huge number of people and encourage them to teach each other.

In conclusion, I discovered that a MOOC can have great potential. But in order to tap that potential, students must be extremely motivated and willing to participate. Only by constantly engaging deeply with this massive community can students really derive any benefit from a MOOC.

Written by: Michael Mussman
Michael Mussman is Editor of Forward Thinking, the Ashford University blog.

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