Learner Experiences with MOOCs and Open Online Learning

Searching for Extraterrestrials, One Video Lecture at a Time

Jennifer Ramirez

It was empowering and refreshing to take a course that had absolutely nothing to do with my career or course load. Due to a lack of prerequisites, I would never be able to walk into a university and sign up for this type of course.

I am not a science fiction fan. Nor am I a biologist, chemist, or an astronomer. I selected the Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life course on a whim. I had read an article on habitable moonsthe day before I selected this course, which sparked my interest on the topic. I wanted to start a course immediately, so I reasoned that I’d look in on the Astrobiology course for a week, and then possibly move on to a more practical course. The Astrobiology course caught my eye because it seemed so different from the personal finance and computer science courses that I had seen on Coursera and other online learning platforms.  This is exactly the type of course that I would not sign up for in a traditional face-to-face setting. My content knowledge in the topic is weak and I have not taken many of the prerequisite courses in years. My interest in the course is also purely personal and is unrelated to anything in my area of study. If I were not able to learn about the topics in Astrobiology through a planned, sequential course, I am not sure that I would have the ability or direction to engage in a personal study of these topics. Taking this course was incredibly empowering because it was so completely outside the range of courses of what I felt I should be taking. It was not related to my degree or to my current profession at all. I did not need the completion certificate for the Astrobiology course, nor could I potentially leverage it in any work-related setting, but I still wanted to take this course. To me, this opportunity was truly an experiment in learning for the sake of learning.


The content of this course dealt with the ways that life, as we know it, came to be and how it evolved. The goal of the course was to examine how life may be distributed and to examine the question, “Are we alone in this universe?” The course began with the conditions needed for life to exist on earth and provided a solid and necessary understanding for what we should look for when we search for habitable planets, along with the possibility of life on those planets. The course started with basic content in biology, chemistry, geology, ecology, and astronomy. I’ve never taken ecology or astronomy, and it’s been more than 10 years since I have taken a course in biology or chemistry. As a result, I was apprehensive about studying even the very basic concepts of these subjects.

For the first few weeks, I was extremely uncomfortable with the content. I was frustrated that I did not know facts such as the name of the chemical building blocks of proteins. Even toward the end of this experience, I still felt some of the same frustration when I couldn’t remember exactly how something like the Doppler effect is used to search for extrasolar planets. At times, the overall feeling of the course was that of watching an interesting television documentary, and then being quizzed upon the details.

Stepping back from my experience, I realize that I did not understand all of the content, but I was still learning a lot of interesting information. I appreciated the fact that the professor emphasized that this is a growing field and much is still yet to be discovered. This fact was reinforced by the current articles that I was finding daily through my own searches and links posted by my classmates.

Structure and Delivery

The course was offered through the University of Edinburgh and it was taught by by Dr. Charles Cockell. Dr. Cockell worked with a team of two people: a postdoctoral researcher named Jesse Harrison and a graduate student named Casey Bryce. Dr. Cockell was the only person who gave the video lectures, but all three participated in the discussion forums.

The content was divided in modules, with two modules per week. Each module had anywhere from 2-6 video lectures and a quiz. The quizzes allowed 3 attempts, with 20% penalty for using the 3rd attempt. I was somewhat disappointed that all of the content was delivered via video lecture. I would have liked more assigned reading material similar to the article that I found the day before I signed up for this class.

Even though I felt I was struggling, I had strong scores of 75% to 85% correct on the quizzes. The quiz questions consisted of broad, big idea type concepts along with some very specific questions. There were some questions that covered content that I later realized was only mentioned briefly, or said in a way that may have required a stronger background knowledge to interpret and apply. There was such a large amount of information given in each lecture that I struggled to decipher the important information and predict which concepts would be on the quiz.

A few weeks into the course I discovered that transcripts of the lectures were available to download, so I began to download those and read along as I watched the videos. To improve the lectures, I would recommend adding the transcript or subtitles as a permanent feature of each lecture so that learners can read along more easily.

This course can best be described as being guided by a behaviorist learning approach. The primary controller of the content was the instructor. This lead to teaching being defined as giving structured and sequenced information to the student. Correct performance in this type of model is rewarded and incorrect performance is penalized.

Though the design of the course seemed to fall under a traditional, behaviorist perspective, the use of the discussion boards had the potential to create a constructivist and connectivist learning environment in which students functioned as sources of knowledge. Many of the students in the class contributed knowledge by posting links to articles and videos relating to the topic, but I felt like this aspect of the class could be built upon and encouraged more. This is especially true for a field such as Astrobiology that is making new discoveries daily.


The discussion forum was the primary form of collaboration for this Astrobiology course. There were discussion boards within the forum that were organized into sections for lecture comments, technical feedback, general discussion, and interests. Because of the large number of students taking the course, I found it difficult to navigate the discussion boards. There were so many posts that I was overwhelmed. It was also frustrating that some of the posts did not pertain to the topic of the board. For example, on a board that was dedicated to lecture comments, there was a discussion about what types of spaceship an extraterrestrial would use, when no mention of space travel was made in the lecture. There were also some instances of negative posts where fellow learners were extremely rude or sarcastic, but it did seem that the learning community as a whole regulated this behavior. The discussion board software allowed students to vote up or vote down posts, and many of the negative posts were voted down so many times they appeared at the very end of the discussion board.

One improvement that I would strongly suggest would be to have discussion boards located in closer proximity to the video lectures and the quizzes. If I had a question pertaining to a quiz, I had to navigate completely out of the quiz area to the discussion forum. From there, I would have to navigate within the forum to the discussion thread about the quiz. Having discussion capability directly on quiz and lecture pages would make posting less cumbersome and would encourage posters to remain more on topic. I would also be less likely to make off-topic posts on a board that was directly linked to a video or lecture.

I would also recommend that the instructors encourage or possibly even assign collaboration as part of the requirements for the course. There is a multitude of information that can be found online and shared on the discussion forums, but if this is not encouraged, students will miss out on this important learning opportunity.


Overall, the course was a valuable learning experience and did not present too many challenges. It was empowering and refreshing to take a course that had absolutely nothing to do with my career or course load. Due to a lack of prerequisites, I would never be able to walk into a university and sign up for this type of course. I also lack the focus or know-how to pursue a personal study of this topic. Though this course may not have any direct application or use in my professional life, I am now able participate in a conversation on extraterrestrial life.