Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): Class in Session

Recently I broached the subject of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which have very recently exploded onto the academic scene. They are an exciting new way of learning; able to reach thousands of students simultaneously while being completely free. It’s an attractive concept, but the question is how this concept performs in the real world. Today we’ll take a look at what it’s like to take an MOOC.

For starters, it’s free, so if you’re ever curious I encourage you to pick a course that sounds at all interesting and take a look. Just poke around the reading material, watch lectures and see if it appeals to you. I’ll admit the concept of any online course, but especially one I’m taking for free and not necessarily for credit makes motivation an issue. However that’s the lazy undergrad in me talking, and if I were to take an MOOC at this age, it would likely be for a specific purpose such as updating my knowledge of specific software or gaining a certification to improve my employment chances.


MOOCs are so young that there isn’t exactly a standard operating procedure just yet, and your experience will vary from platform to platform and even course to course. However you can expect to have a syllabus, video lectures from the professor, textbooks or assigned readings and a student discussion forum. One big relief for me was finding out that most textbooks for MOOCs are free and available within the course materials online. Beyond that, they are often divided up piece meal, with the readings for each lesson grouped with the lecture videos for that lesson, freeing you from flipping (or scrolling) through one big document.

While I honestly shouldn’t have been surprised, my years in college lead me to suspect the student discussion forum would be largely empty and mostly dominated by a select few students. However, given that the forums are the only place to ask questions the the professor and class, it makes sense that they are actually quite active. If you think about it, it’s still likely that a small percentage of the whole class is actually participating, with most simply browsing, but with hundreds or thousands of students in each class, this makes for a lively and active forum.

Lesson Plan DocThe structure of each lecture will vary based on the course material, but in the first course I signed up for, Introduction to Biology hosted by edX, the lectures were divided into ‘chapters’ if I can use that term loosely. For instance, the first chapter was a 1 minute video from the professor, Eric Lander of MIT, introducing the course and its structure. Chapter two was a longer (7 min) video shot from the back of an actual lecture with a room full of students in which Lander often addressed the camera directly as he scans the room of students, giving you the feeling of being just another participant in the course. That is clearly very superficial, but an interesting tactic to try to engage the online audience.


So, after a short video of the first few minutes of Lander’s lecture, we’re given a discussion question in chapter 3 in which lander asks what we, the online students, are hoping to gain from this course. This is conducted in the form of a discussion forum. The lecture continues in chapter 4 and, with the introductory stuff complete, we get a sense of how the lectures are truly structured. In general, each 5-10 minutes of lecture is broken up by a short quiz, usually multiple-choice but sometimes in the form of a discussion thread.

Now here’s where we jump tracks to show the differences between courses and platforms. For my next course I dropped in on an Introduction to Computer Science course on Udacity. The instructor for this course was David Evans, a professor at the University of Virginia. While the intro bio class gave a very organic feel with the traditional lecture hall, this course appropriately had very technical feel. The backbone of the course was largely the same, with short lecture videos broken up with quizzes, however instead of dropping in on a traditional lecture, these videos are produced specifically for the online student. Each video is just you and the Professor Evans as appears to write on top of your screen like a white board.


Also, given that this is a computer science course with lots of coding, instead of multiple choice questions most quizzes consist of writing functioning code to accomplish a task (such as a countdown timer).

Overall I believe taking an MOOC is extremely intuitive and streamlined. The division of course material, with lectures, quizzes and reading materials divided into linear, bite sized chunks, makes digesting the course simple. A big bonus to MOOC students over traditional students is being able to go back and rewatch a lecture (or part of one) if you are struggling with a certain piece of material. This is exceptionally helpful with courses in math, computer science or chemistry in which specific formulas or sequences must be memorized and mastered before moving on.

The biggest hurdle for MOOCs that I see at this stage is actually the student. The material and courses themselves I think are extremely intuitive and easy to navigate, but the motivation and focused attention of the student is variable. It’s incredibly easy to blow off watching a lecture that will still be there tomorrow, or to give in to distractions like browsing the web while the lectures play.

However  MOOCs do not have to worry about graduation rates or student grade point averages like Universities do, and the cream of the student crop will inevitably rise to the top and take full advantage of the platform. In that sense the numbers game works in favor of MOOCs since even if they have low completion/certification rates, there is still a large number of students gaining value given the volume that can take any one course.

The MOOC experience is not at all comparable to the traditional University experience, but it’s not trying to be. MOOCs are a new kind of course for a new kind of student. With more and more students trying to negotiate a course schedule, work schedule and their own social lives, MOOCs are a easy to fit into your life.

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