Learner Experiences with MOOCs and Open Online Learning

What I Learned From And About MOOCs

Bahaa G. Ghobrial

Exploring possible fields of interest is one of the areas in which I find MOOCs helpful...they give me the opportunity to learn about fields that I have very little knowledge of.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) offer numerous opportunities and challenges. I feel that I could benefit greatly from MOOCs, especially since they are offered for free. Exploring possible fields of interest is one of the areas in which I find MOOCs helpful. For example, they give me the opportunity to learn about fields that I have very little knowledge of -- such as child nutrition -- and decide whether to spend more time, effort and money in the future to learn more about them. In addition, there are some areas that I have basic knowledge of but still need to take advanced courses in, such as statistics. MOOCs afford me the opportunity to do that. On the other hand however, a real concern I have about MOOCs is that they may suffer from issues relating to digital divides: While some students may access MOOCs and use them to enrich their knowledge, individuals who lack information and communications technology skills or access to the Internet, are excluded from this opportunity.

In the paragraphs that follow, I will discuss opportunities and concerns that I experienced while enrolled in three massive open online courses.

Fundamentals of Online Education

I started my exploration by seeking out an online course related to e-learning because I am interested to learn how to create online learning courses. As a doctoral student in media studies, I want to learn how new media can contribute to online learning from the lens of educational technology. There were two courses that were offered on the Coursera platform related to this topic: E-learning and Digital Cultures, developed by five instructors at the University of Edinburgh, and Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application, developed by one instructor at Georgia Tech. The syllabus, video lectures, and reading lists in the latter course seemed more organized so I decided to enroll in it.

However, a few days after the class started, the instructor suspended it explaining that there were some choices made in the initial design of the course that did not work out as well as she had hoped. According to her announcement, she was working to address these issues. At the time of writing, it has been more than 10 weeks since the announcement was posted and the course has not been re-launched. I felt that in a traditional educational setting, classes might be canceled, but more often as a result of major issues (e.g., institutional circumstances) rather than technical or pedagogical issues that could have been resolved through appropriate instructional design and testing prior to course launch.

As soon as I received the announcement about the course being suspended, I enrolled in the E-learning and Digital Cultures course. I hoped that a course that was developed by five instructors would offer me a wider exposure and multiple points of view to the topic. I joined this course during its second week.

E-learning and Digital Cultures

This course was about digital culture and its intersection with learning culture online. It was aimed at instructors, learning technologists, and others who were interested to learn about education in general. The total registered students in this class exceeded 42,000. Around 65% of visitors to the course’s news page seem to come from the USA and 8% from the UK.

The course consisted of short film clips alongside reading lists and discussion forums. It was divided in five weeks and included two main themes. The course was well structured. Each theme was covered in two weeks, and the last week was devoted to the final assessment. Each week had an introduction page that described the lessons’ main concepts, and a resources page which contained around four video clips and several links to freely-available academic articles. It is worth mentioning that, unlike what currently is the norm in MOOCs, the instructors did not design the course to be taught through lecture videos. The video clips were a selection of concepts related to the course’s two themes, and they were available on YouTube (e.g., Inbox) and Vimeo (e.g., New Media). Each lesson had around 26 minutes of video. For the readings, each lesson had about five articles and they were classified as ideas and interpretations (“Core” and “Advanced”) and Perspectives on education. These resources were not written or developed by the instructors of the course, and while at times the resources clearly communicated the lessons’ main ideas or themes, there were times where I could not see the resources’ relevance to the lessons’ main ideas or themes.

The instructors served as facilitators rather than lecturers. This was not what I expected when I decided to enroll in this class. As this course was developed by five instructors, I thought I would have the opportunity to learn from their different points of view regarding e-learning and digital cultures; nevertheless, I did not feel that this was the case. Instead, the instructors presented a relatively uniform perspective on e-learning.

As this course did not include weekly assignments, discussion forums were one of the tools students could use to interact with each other as well as the instructors. Students appeared to be very active in creating threads and communicating with each other. In the threads I either read or participated in, I observed that students were friendly and considerate in their conversations with their fellow students.

The assessment for the course was a digital artifact that was to contain a mixture of text, image, and video, and was to be posted online. The artifact was evaluated by other students through a guided peer-assessment and each participant was responsible for assessing the artifacts of at least three fellow participants. I did not complete the course assessment because I was not able to finish my digital artifact and assess other three artifacts during the last week of class. I thought that it would have been beneficial if the course assessment was divided into weekly milestones, such that the workload was distributed throughout the course period. This would have allowed me more time in completing my artifact and assessing others’ artifacts.

Social Network Analysis

After I finished the E-Learning and Digital Cultures course, I enrolled in another course with Coursera. This one was called Social Network Analysis and was developed by Lada Adamic, an associate professor with the University of Michigan. I enrolled in this course because I had previously enrolled in a course on social capital and social networks and I wanted to advance my knowledge about social network analysis. This course focused on using social network analysis to explain social and informational networks and served my purposes.

The course consisted of lecture videos, weekly graded assignments, optional programing assignments, and a final exam. It was divided in 9 weeks and it was well structured, with each week including around four lecture videos and four recommended readings. The last week was devoted to the final exam. The instructor was the one featured in the lecture videos (about 8 hours of video). These videos, as well as all the presentations she used in the lectures, were available for download. In the lecture videos, the instructor split the screen into two parts, a small part that showed her face giving the lecture and a larger one that showed her presentation. This course also required enrolled students to learn several software tools and the instructor used the same split screen technique to give tutorials of how to use these tools. The way the instructor delivered the lecture videos gave me the impression that was in a real classroom, where the instructor was lecturing. All the lecture videos had English subtitles and some of them had subtitles in other languages. I am a non-native English speaker and this is was a good option for me. The videos were also interactive. As I watched the lectures I was provided with several in-video quizzes. I found the in-video quizzes to be very effective because they did not only make the lectures interactive, but also gave immediate feedback regarding whether I grasped the main points of the lecture or not.

The professor asked students to submit weekly assignments for grading. This motivated me to check the lessons’ resources carefully in order to correctly answer the weekly assignments. The only concern I had about these assignments was that they were very challenging. As a result, I became less concerned about the course’s main ideas and focused my attention on how to solve the weekly homework and deal with the technical problems I encountered while using some of the course’s applications.

The instructor had two teaching assistants, who were very active in answering the students’ questions and addressing their concerns. I was in this course for 4 weeks. I wish I had enough time to finish the course, but I could not, as the course workload was at least 5-7 hours/week and I had several final exams at that time as part of my regular workload.

Learning via MOOCs was a different experience than what I have encountered in traditional classrooms. I think that the online availability and flexibility are two of the most important characteristics of MOOCs. Because of these two features, I managed to do the following in the MOOCs I enrolled in: (1) I took the courses on my own time, when it was convenient for me, instead of taking fixed schedule classes; (2) I took courses from different universities and professors without worrying about course registration, tuition fees, and accommodation; and (3) while taking one of the MOOCs, I got busy with my final exams and had to drop in the middle; however, I could go back to the course, even after it ended, as I have access to the course archive. Moreover, I have a list of courses I want to take to enhance my skills, and because of the availability of MOOCs, I am more confident than ever before that I can achieve this goal in the near future.

As an Internet user, I feel privileged to have access to MOOCs and take advantage of them. Many of the courses I took via MOOCs, online were the only available option for me. My experience with MOOCs is very positive as I learned a lot from the content of the courses I enrolled in and I am planning to take more MOOCs in the future. However, I do not think that MOOCs can replace traditional classrooms.