Learner Experiences with MOOCs and Open Online Learning

MOOCs: Falling Short of What Online Learning Could Be

Michael Ota

I began the course wanting to acquire a comprehensive review of statistics, but by the time the course ended I was left with a partial sense of accomplishment and feelings of hollowness and incompleteness.

Online learning promises significant advantages over the traditional face-to-face setting: self pacing; access to infinitely vast resources on the Internet; engaging and immediately responsive instruction; and a diverse and effective community of co-learners available 24-7 for feedback and connection. I believe the power of online education is in changing how we learn. While taking wo Statistics MOOCs (one through EdX and one through Udacity) however, I felt that the courses fell short of their platform’s potential.

My first statistics MOOC

I started with a Statisticscourse through EdX. I chose this because I was beginning the data analysis phase of my MA thesis and thought it would be good to refresh my knowledge on the topic.

The course followed a rigid structure, with a weekly release of content. Each unit had 3 or 4 lessons that contained a series of video lectures, practice problems, and graded practice sets. The platform graded answers automatically, but did not provide feedback until the midterm.

I had a frustrating and stressful experience with this course, even before it started. The course faced logistical problems from the beginning. First, the start date was delayed by 10 days. The explanation provided was that the teaching team wanted to improve the curriculum so the course could be better executed. It seemed that the course was undergoing restructuring right up to the time it began. Second, originally the course description stated that this course would last one month, and would be followed by two other one-month courses that together would cover one semester’s worth of material, for a total of 15 weeks. When the course finally started, this changed and part one would last for two months and subsequent courses would be created to cover the remaining parts. These logistical issues were unexpected. They added time constraints and made me feel overwhelmed.

In addition, the flow and structure of the class seemed awkward to me. I have a math degree and background, including experience in curriculum development, teacher training, and teaching math at the secondary and college levels. As a result, I often think about the presentation of math concepts and how an audience receives that presentation. The lessons were essentially PowerPoint presentations with voice-over. The delivery was simply boring. The videos were 10 to 15 minutes long for each segment of the lecture, and the practice problems involved superficial situations that seemed disconnected from anything authentic. Many of the problems involved the use of data that had no real connection to how statistics is used in the real world. For example, interquartile range (an exceptionally abstract concept) was presented and practiced in abstract data, with no indication of how this type of calculation might be used outside of the classroom.

The teaching staff seemed defensive in their interactions with students, both in my own experience and what I observed on the discussion forums.To illustrate: At one point, one question asked students to find the median of a data set, and even though I selected the correct answer, I was marked incorrect. I knew that my selected answer was correct and confirmed it to be so through checking other sources. I turned to the discussion forum located conveniently at the bottom on the exercise set and after searching the forum postings on a solution to this issue, I did not find any postings that were useful in resolving the issue I was facing. Therefore, I posted a comment stating that the grading was incorrect. My experience in the class thus far led me to expect replies that were going to be candid, but respectful. Over the next few days, I received several (mostly) supportive comments from other students, with useful information directing me to the source of how the problem was done. The response I received from one of the teaching staff, however, was neither supportive, nor helpful. Instead it was scolding, stating that it was obvious I hadn’t viewed the lecture. While I didn’t expect staff to instantly take my word that there was a mistake, I certainly didn't expect negative and condescending remarks.

I also experienced a great deal of stress due to the graded practice sets and a progress-based grade book. I found myself falling into old habits of constantly checking that progress. I soon felt defeated once my overall grade was locked in below 70%. I revised my expectations downwards from achieving an A to scoring enough points to pass (35%). I ended up receiving a 55% mastery and was awarded a certificate of successful completion. I began the course wanting to acquire a comprehensive review of statistics, but by the time the course ended I was left with a partial sense of accomplishment and feelings of hollowness and incompleteness.

My second statistics MOOC

Due to that fact that the EdX course ended earlier than anticipated (8 weeks instead of 15) and I felt unsatisfied by my review of statistics, I enrolled in a second statisticscourse. This course was provided through Udacity and had no start/end dates or timeline. It simply consisted of a sequence of video lectures. The Udacity course was less stressful because the lack of deadlines allowed me to work at my own pace. In addition, the content of this course was engaging, as the videos embedded practice problems relevant to real life and provided feedback. For example, the very first problem was set in the context of the personality types of Facebook friends that might be on my friend list. I distinctly remember feeling engaged and interested in the idea of how a simple concept of probability could be lurking in my daily online interactions.

My experience with the Udacity course was positive, and thus completely different from the first course. Even the opening video describing the course was engaging and interesting. The presentation platform was also impressive as it allowed me to enter answers directly on the video, provided immediate feedback, and gave me the option to watch video explanations.

The Udacity course was an open-ended learning experience as there was no timeline or gradual release of content. I could jump back and forth between topics, practice sets, and units. There was a linear layout that I could follow if I wanted to, but my transition through the content was flexible. In addition, there were no grades involved in the Udacity course, and my focus was on what I needed to know to complete the practice sets. I was more driven in the few weeks with this course than in the 2 months in the EdX course.

However, even though I had the freedom to move between topics, I was limited by the topics pre-selected by the course designers. I would have rather been given a problem set and a list of topics to research for further flexibility. Just as in the EdX course, the Udacity course required me to solve problems using a specific method, even though there are different methods that I could have used to arrive at the correct answer. For example, Bayes’ rule was outlined in a step-by-step fashion, with emphasis placed on correct execution of each step. I found this approach confusing, especially as there are other methods that I could have used to solve the problems.

Suggestions for improving the learning experience

To offer a better learning experience, the two courses that I participated in should revise the ways in which they deliver content in the following three ways:

  • The greatest departure from good instructional design practice was in the question sets and assessments. Often, the problems were loosely related to the lesson and guided practice materials. The loose connections often led to confusion and diminished my experience.
  • Another issue that I faced was in the use of video (i.e., "talking head") and text-based materials, which were not engaging. Current technologies could provide a platform for a connected and interactive experience that interlaces media with Web 2.0 tools (e.g., Google Hangouts). This also allows for more peer-to-peer interaction that would support student-centered learning.
  • Finally, the learning experience lacked flexibility. The courses can become customizable by allowing students to choose to solve problems and apply the material in different ways. Even though the Udacity course material was presented in authentic ways (e.g., the types of personalities of Facebook friends), it was still prescribed and limited.

If the platforms were more open, allowing flexibility, interactivity, and connections to others, my experiences with both courses would have been greatly improved.

Thoughts on Learning Theory

Both the EdX and Udacity courses appeared to be based on traditional behaviorist and cognitivist learning theories. The courses were formatted with a lesson cycle of information acquisition, practice, feedback, and assessment. In my opinion, the designers were expecting students to come in with a "clean slate" with respect to prerequisite knowledge (i.e., all you needed was knowledge of basic arithmetic) and to answer the practice questions based on only the knowledge acquired from the lectures. Essentially, their approach to learning was based on the traditional classroom model of education, with the delivery simply transferred to the online platform.

However, even though designed in a structured way, my actual experience with the course was much more fluid. By reading the discussion forums, it was evident that many of the students, including myself, had prior knowledge and were trying to apply that knowledge to the course. I have a large amount of statistics education and training, so when I encountered an error in one of the problems from the EdX course, I used my prior knowledge to develop an acceptable answer. I pulled together a number of sources and used them in my response, which I then shared with the other students in the course. In both courses I chose to research and piece together my understanding of the topic while I was attempting the practice sets instead of just watching the professor's lectures or cycling through the units in a linear sequence. In this way, I believe that my approach departed from what the designers intended since both courses emphasized watching the videos and completing the work through the learning management system.

To summarize, I felt that my experience with both of these courses fell short of what online learning could accomplish. Both courses used the technology as a tool for presenting content and assessing my mastery of that content, but each approached it in an entirely different way. The EdX course felt like a traditional math class, yet had a more active online community that seemed to support my learning process. The Udacity course felt open and engaging, but taught strictly prescribed steps to solutions that stifled my creativity. However, knowing the capabilities of the technology and the unique elements of these courses, this experience has solidified my belief in how MOOC platforms could be on the cusp of a great impact on learning.