Learner Experiences with MOOCs and Open Online Learning

Learning about MOOCs by being in one

Mihyun Lim

I was able to access the assigned movies via links that were posted on a Facebook page created for the class by a course participant.

I participated in The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound, and Color via Coursera. This course was taught by Scott Higgins who is an Associate Professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University.

I choose this course partly because it was a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) and partly because of its topic. The course was about the ways that fundamental changes in film technology affected popular Hollywood storytelling. I was also interested in the MOOC format in general. My field of study is Learning Technologies and I thought that this MOOC would be an interesting opportunity to explore the integration of technology in a field of study unrelated to my own. I hoped to gain a new perspective for my academic interests and broaden my horizons. This course used video lectures and discussion boards which, at the time of writing, were two of the main instructional techniques used in MOOCs.

The course was mainly delivered with pre-recorded video lectures and depended highly on those videos. The content of the class was fairly straightforward and included vocabulary, history, and themes relevant to class. The instructor explained some of the major turning points with new technology and the new challenges facing Hollywood. We learned about the meaning of language in film and the history of film study. We also discovered how sound and colors were applied to film and how this new technology affected Hollywood storytelling. For instance, it was interesting when Professor Higgins introduced Frank Borzage’s 1928 silent film Street Angel and discussed the power of silence as a visual art.

In the introductory video the instructor explained the goal of the course in a way that was clear to understand and easy to follow. One of the things that I liked about this course was its step-by-step approach to the content. For example, the professor always started his lecture with some new terminology or key words and expanded the discussion with some additional questions or visual aids. As a non-professional film major student who does not have any theoretical background knowledge on the topic, this made it easy to understand the content.

As the course progressed, the length of the video lectures increased. In the first week the video lectures were 15 minutes long, but by the third week the total length of one video was almost 45 minutes. The videos had very little visual content and included only the instructor’s face and his upper body. A bookshelf was in the background. The instructor delivered the content without using much of lecture notes. Occasionally he would display some keywords or main ideas on the screen. As a result, it was hard for me to keep focused on his speaking and follow the lecturer even though I am an adult and an experienced doctoral student.

While taking this course, I began to wonder if the same course existed at Wesleyan University but delivered by face-to-face instruction rather than web-based instruction. I wondered about this because the course seemed to reuse materials from a face-to-face class. Online courses that simply use the curriculum and teaching materials from a face-to-face setting and post them on a learning management system are missing important aspects of how people learn online and what affects their learning. For example, an instructor could strategically break down his or her teaching materials into bite-size pieces since people rarely read Web pages word-by-word. Students can scan and find information quicker in online environments if this information is chunked into pieces, and that may help with recall and learning.

One of the questions that I faced during this experience was: How should course platform or structure be designed? I could not help but wonder that the delivery mechanism of current MOOCs is limiting the possibilities of open education. It seemed like it borrows the early days of online learning design and added discussion boards and videos. I see little difference between MOOCs that use this format and the universities that broadcast content and lectures via TV.

One of the things that I liked about this course was the instructor’s approach to learner interaction, as he tried to actively interact with learners. At the end of the pre-recorded lectures, he would ask the learners to post questions on the discussion forums so that he could use them as a guide to evaluate the learners’ understanding. This action seemed to encourage participation, but the instructor did not seem to refer to the comments or respond to student questions in future lecture videos.

I liked to read through every discussion board posting because it helped me to know what other people were thinking about the characters, stories and other aspects of the movies we were assigned to watch. I think the ongoing discussion made me feel like I was involved in a face-to-face class discussion. However, it was not easy to follow the new posts on every discussion because the postings were threaded in a linear way. It must have been almost impossible for the instructor or TA to go through them all!

Each week, the instructor suggested two or three different movies to review. However, copyright laws prevented him from providing us direct access to the films online. As a result he tried to select some movies which were available for rental from Netflix and other similar services or movies that were freely-available online. I was able to access the assigned movies via links that were posted on a Facebook page created for the class by a course participant. I really appreciated the resources on Facebook. Not only was I able to find links to the movies, but I was also more easily able to exchange my thoughts and get to know peers better than the Coursera discussion forums. Being able to see peers’ pictures, visit their Facebook page, and read their posts/comments/responses also facilitated this. Although the instructor was not on the Facebook group, the group all made me feel engaged and part of a community.

When I first signed up this course, I decided to explore MOOCs and their design rather than focus exclusively on the course content. I wondered what a new kind of college-like experience is like and why people get excited about the open education phenomenon. I had an inspiring and memorable experience with this course. After taking an online course I want to know more about them. Getting a taste of open education and online culture has only left me with more intellectual curiosity about this huge and undeniable educational trend.