Learner Experiences with MOOCs and Open Online Learning

MOOCs made me see the potential of online learning

Hui-chieh Chen

A unique aspect of my MOOC experience is the fact that I enrolled in and started this course during its fourth week. At the end of the course, I went back to the modules I missed and completed those on my own.

I took the course “Fundamentals of Human Nutrition” offered through Coursera and the University of Florida. Dr. von Castel-Roberts was the course instructor and had seven years of online teaching experience. The course seemed to welcome all levels of learners and was an introduction to human digestion and absorption of nutrients, nutrient properties, deficiencies, toxicities, and dietary guidelines. Readings were assigned from the Kansas State University Human Nutrition Flexbook, which is an open textbook whose development is described here.

The course was organized in ten modules that each lasted for one week. The course was well structured with weekly tasks, assignments, and grading rubrics. Assignments included making a five-day diet plan, building a concept map for the whole course, and editing the textbook used for the class. The delivery of the content was through links to the e-textbook and lecture videos of PowerPoint slides. The textbook was easy to read, but some chapters were dry. The instructor suggested learners read the assigned materials first, then watch the 30-minute video lecture, and finally take the quiz and participate in the discussion forums. Her lectures summarized the important concepts from the textbook. This process is similar to most of my traditional face-to-face graduate courses: reading assignments before class, explanation and discussion during class.

Students could choose between three levels of course engagement: understanding, application, and synthesis. Students who chose the application or synthesis level and did all the required assignments were eligible to obtain a certificate of completion. Providing participation options made the course flexible, because this design decision allowed me to decide the amount of involvement that I wanted to have based on my time and ability. I did not aim at obtaining a certificate, and I was satisfied with seeking to understand the material. This level of commitment only required me to participate in the weekly discussion forums and take quizzes. I felt empowered to decide my own learning depth considering my desired workload and rewards. In Learning, Freedom, and the Web, Kamenetz described how rewards in the form of badges could contribute to personalized achievements and thus provide extrinsic motivation to online participants. I experienced this phenomenon as my choice guided my learning and motivated me to complete all the required tasks to prove that I had reached that level of knowledge.

One interesting feature of this course was peer assessment. Each learner submitted his or her own project report and evaluated others’ according to a grading rubric. With such help from students, the instructor wasn’t the only person responsible for grading and the learners could benefit from looking at peers’ work. In addition, peer assessment provided an efficient solution for evaluating class projects in an extremely large class.

At first, I was disappointed to see that the instructor did not respond to individual student posts. She would only respond to issues relating to peer assignments, course content, and learning materials, and would make course announcements aimed at all learners. Instructor-student interactions were very limited due to the fact that there are so many learners in the course. This experience was different from my classroom learning experiences where the instructor usually gives frequent feedback to the students. The instructor’s low level of online presence made me doubtful on whether my discussion board posts could be seen. However, I soon realized that it was more feasible to receive help from more experienced or competent peers.

The discussion forums were a source of learning and frustration. On the one hand, I benefited from the discussion forums because they made me feel like sitting in a classroom participating in discussions with a diverse group of peers. These peers would contribute their own personal experiences, expertise, hyperlinks, empirical studies, and have discussion and debates. The weekly discussion topics were interesting and engaging to me, and I was eager to participate and had to always push myself to absorb the reading content quickly in order to pose questions/comments or respond to other classmates in the discussion forums. However, I was also frustrated that many learners created new discussion threads rather than responding to existing ones. One suggestion to address this problem would be for the course design team to post participation guidelines to facilitate massive group discussions. For example, authors could provide brief descriptions of the topic on a subject line when creating a new discussion thread.

One of the engaging aspects of this course was that it was designed with some consideration of the learners’ diverse cultural backgrounds. Even though most of the course content was based on North American eating habits and health problems, the assignments helped balance the course by posing more open-ended issues to invite multi-cultural discussions and projects. For example, one of the multi-cultural activities assigned was to create a five-day diet plan for a trip. The instructor encouraged learners to collaborate with partners from different countries and investigate local meal cultures. I felt this project was relevant to my multi-cultural experience with foods: I am from Taiwan and have lived in North America for two years. While doing the project, I used my life experiences to create a healthy diet plan of Asian and American flavors for one of my trips to Chicago. In addition, I was excited to share information about Taiwanese food with other classmates. I felt greatly enriched by this project and I was glad to participate even though this project was not required for the understanding track that I was aiming towards.

A unique aspect of my MOOC experience is the fact that I enrolled in and started this course during its fourth week. At the end of the course, I went back to the modules I missed and completed those on my own. Thus, for seven weeks my participation was synchronous and on-pace with the rest of the students taking the course. During those weeks, I participated in the course according to the schedule provided. When the course ended, I went back to explore the three first weeks of the content. At first, I enjoyed the lack of pressure, as I was able to engage with the content in my own time. But then, I found that the absence of social interactions with other learners made me feel less motivated to think deeply about the content.

Based on my two different learning experiences with this MOOC, I would suggest that learners interested in projects and peer collaboration should follow the course schedule. Those learners who merely expect some understanding of the course materials, a more flexible self-paced style approach would suffice.

Overall, I had a positive experience with my first MOOC. I appreciated the structured learning experience and the opportunity for varying participation in the class (allowing for flexible learning). Alternative perspectives made the discussion topics more holistic and the peer assessments made the projects feasible in the massive course settings. Apart from a few issues outlined above, the instructor and the course design team lent support for learners’ problems. With some fine tuning and implementation, I believe this course can be improved for the benefit of a greater number of learners.