Learner Experiences with MOOCs and Open Online Learning

Culinary Creations from the Online Chef

Mary Bisheh

The support and encouragement made me want to further my participation in the community and comment on other’s posts. I felt a sense of social duty to be a contributing member of the group and maintain my group identity...

My online participatory experience happened within the world of Epicurious.com, playfully billed as the site for “people who love to eat.” The website itself includes an informational food and recipe database, message forums, interviews with celebrity chefs, and abundant tips and ideas on cooking. Even though the website appeared to be overwhelming and full of activity, it still seemed manageable. I entered this world and took advantage of it by letting my own interests and passions on the topic drive my decisions on how to fully utilize the site. For a few weeks I immersed myself into the world of cooking and recipes, and was a willing and eager participant into this easily overlooked, yet fascinating world.

There were a number of aspects of this experience that appealed to me. For example, I could examine the recipes that interested me and explore the materials at my own pace. My homework, rather than being papers or problems, would be cooking recipes, meals, desserts, and documenting my culinary creations. Since cooking is a relaxing activity and something that I strive to improve at, I was motivated to engage with this project.

At the same time however, I did have many concerns about the experience. My perception of online learning through a more unstructured experience was that the participants need to be very self-motivated to find what they are looking for. Additionally, participants also need to be able to sift through and make sense of large amounts of information. I was unsure if the site would have enough information to sustain my interests and if I would be diligent enough to participate on regular basis to make the experience worthwhile.

Another concern was the commercial nature of the website. The site, while having many good attributes, also included advertisements and paid recipes or cookbooks that users could add to their own collections. I disliked the commercial nature to some extent; at the same time, commercialization seems to be an inevitable consequence of participating in special interest sites. This situation made me think about issues regarding the commercialization of education, specifically with the growth of online learning. I fear that corporations like Apple or Google who develop the technologies and software necessary to facilitate online learning might not always have the interest of education in their sights. Is the commercialization of education the inevitable price to pay for online learning? I’m not sure, but I did feel as though these concerns did not overshadow my own learning experience.

Epicurious has vast quantities of recipes -- these come from cookbooks, celebrity chefs, and other members. The collection of recipes is an example of “wikification of knowledge” discussed by Mazoue (2012). Wikification of knowledge in this context refers to an ongoing collection of knowledge from various sources which can further be updated and revised. The traditional example used to illustrate this idea is Wikipedia, a collaboratively-edited encyclopedia. The vast amount of free information available on the Internet raises the question: Is it necessary to buy books (or cookbooks in my case) anymore? I enjoyed the ease with which I was able to search the site and appreciated having access to ratings provided by others to alert me to the quality of recipes. All these features are not possible in print media, and having access to them supported my learning.

Most recipes on Epicurious are posted in text form, without any images or visuals attached to them. Some contained pictures or tips, and a few even included video. I tried creating meals using all these different recipe types. The recipes that were in text (pumpkin bread, turkey meatballs, and tabbouleh) came out ok, even though I was unsure of how much spice I should use and lacked a visual representation of how the finished product would look. Additional resources in text-based recipes, such as images, would have been helpful. The recipes I tried that included pictures or tips (roasted chicken, fresh herb kuku) were great and the result was very tasty. Finally, the video recipe (saffron dill rice) was also was a success. The recipes that contained visuals were immensely beneficial in relaying to me what the final product should look like. I recognize that my I appreciate visuals, hence why I succeeded with the recipes that contained more images and video.

Toward the end of my experience, I decided to participate more in several of the recipe swap communities. I took time to create several posts, and to comment on other people’s posts. My posts inquired about recipe ideas for Persian New Year. The responses I received were detailed, precise, and encouraging. The online moderator of the group even asked if I would post again to update everyone on my progress. Because my input was specifically asked for, I felt compelled to take the time to update my fellow group mates and provide them with detailed explanations of how my cooking adventures were going. The responses were resoundingly positive. Most group members complimented me and remarked on the apparent deliciousness of my food. I was surprised at how their reactions affected me. The support and encouragement made me want to further my participation in the community and comment on other’s posts. I felt a sense of social duty to be a contributing member of the group and maintain my group identity (green_girl) by commenting on other people’s posts as they had taken the time to comment on mine. There were no negative responses, and everyone was contributing because it seemed that they had something to say and they wanted people to know it was them who responded.

In participating in an open online learning experience, I feel like I’ve become a more skilled cook and have discovered some great recipes in the process. Despite the fact that I was initially worried about the unstructured nature of this learning experience, I ended up discovering that the ease with which I was able to work created a genuine learning experience that maintained my interest. I could however understand how less focused online learning students might struggle with the same sort of unstructured “take it at your own pace” attitude. Anderson, Poelhubber, and McKelrich (2010) for example note that there are “higher attrition rates associated with self-paced learning.” On the contrary, having the ability to select and contribute to the recipes I was most interested in, and making connections with people in the online discussion groups kept me motivated. The ownership of the project via personal choices was empowering and gave me insight as to how participatory cultures can be self-sustaining entities. This experience highlighted for me how I personally learn best and what kinds of online experiences are more meaningful to me. While the collection of recipes, information, and knowledge was exciting to explore, the online forum and group discussions were especially impactful. I hope to maintain my own Epicurious recipe box and maintain my online presence from time to time in the recipe swap forum.