MOOC: A first-hand experience

In recent years, massive open online courses (MOOC) have gained a lot of attention. I can understand why. Because they are “open,” anyone can sign up and take a free class. Classes in my discipline (Computer Science) are also commonly available for people interested in an introduction to programming (and a few other courses).

To be frank, a little part of me was worried or threatened by MOOCs. As PhD candidate aspiring to be a tenure-track professor, I look forward to finding a college or university that values teaching to call my home. I love interacting with students in and out of class. But then MOOCs appeared. I was excited, but scared. Were online courses going to replace traditional classrooms? Was my in-person and highly-interactive teaching style and experience becoming obsolete?

I decided to find out for myself. I signed up for a MOOC: Introduction to Music Production on Coursera. I’m a hobbyist musician and recording engineer with some formal training, but no real professional experience. This MOOC was offered by a talented professor at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, Loudon Stearns. Like many who sign up for MOOCs, I was excited to learn something new from an expert! Through the 6-week course, I also made note of how the MOOC was organized, implemented, and how it impacted my learning. This course would be an opportunity to learn more about a topic that interested me, but also gave me an opportunity to conduct sort of an ethnographic study of students in a MOOC.

Each week’s topic was split into (usually 5-10) smaller lessons and each lesson was delivered via pre-recorded video. Each lesson’s video lasted about 2-10 minutes — quite a change of pace from traditional 60+ minute college lectures. I loved it! Honestly, it might have been the most effective aspect of learning in a MOOC. Short videos were succinct, to the point, and easily kept my attention. Although the videos included a fair amount of just watching the teacher speak, they also took advantage of computer screen streaming to illustrate software and concepts we were learning. It is also worth noting that — unlike some distance-learning online courses I had taken in the past — the audio quality was great so there were not problems understanding the professor.

As a teacher, I was also interested in how a MOOC with hundreds (or thousands) of online students would be managed and assessed. Each week had at least a couple short, multiple-choice quizzes. Quizzes were automatically graded and you could re-take them as many times as you liked until you were satisfied with your score. I don’t think the quizzes added much value to the course because even if you don’t know the answers, you can just repeat a quiz and guarantee yourself a good score.

The other major form of evaluation were weekly assignments. For each assignment, we had a week to:

  1. Choose a specific area related to the lessons that week
  2. Prepare a 5 minute lesson of our own
  3. Create a youtube video (5 minutes or less) or PDF (equivalent to about 2 pages written)
  4. Peer-review 5 other students’ lessons, and then self-review our own.

While I recognize value in peer-evaluation and self-reflection, it because obvious within a few weeks that students did not spend much effort or critical thought to peer-evaluation. It became more or less expected to get a perfect or near-perfect score as long as you demonstrate at least a little effort. These weekly assignments are only evaluated by peers, not by course staff.Therefore, there really was no accountability for doing quality evaluation. Consequently, I saw the quality of lessons and quality of evaluations drop from week to week. Admittedly, I followed the trend as well. It was the path of leastĀ resistanceĀ  do the minimal amount of work necessary to get a good grade.

There was also a final exam that was just an accumulation of several multiple-choice quiz questions. We’d seen the questions before. It was easy to ace even without deliberate studying.

That in many ways was the biggest weakness of the MOOC: the evaluation was set up for students to pass as long as they put in some minimal effort. I imagine some very motivated students made a lot out of the class. I know there was some collaboration and discussions in message boards, but not any more so than any usual class message board (by my observations).

I passed the class and gained a new perspective on MOOCs. They certainly aren’t the future of learning and are no where near replacing in-class experiences. However, with that said, they are useful resources for students who are motivated and self-driven enough to absorb the material and make the most out of what is available. In that perspective, a MOOC is a big step up from having to read books or online resources to try to teach yourself a new skill.

By really enjoying the format of short lessons, I am going to keep in mind how I pace my classroom lectures. There is a useful pedagogical tool in delivering concise material, followed by exercises or hands-on activities. Although I already had that model in mind when I’ve taught classes in the past, I’m sure my delivery wasn’t as succinct.

Lastly, online resources offer a lot of potential for innovating learning. I don’t consider MOOCs “the answer,” but they do provide insights into how to increase accessibility and enrollment. However, it remains to be seen if we can also tackle the problem of managing and giving real substantial evaluation and feedback to all students in such massive, open, online courses.