Monday, January 14, 2013

Ya want fries with that Mooc-shake?

Like anyone involved in online learning, I have been following the MOOC (massive open online course) debate with interest, and have read the discussions about the evolution of the phenomenon from the early constructivist/connectivist iterations, (cMOOCs) facilitated by Stephen Downes and George Siemens to the current, truly massive beasts, produced by Coursera and the like (xMOOCs). However, I was never a happy window shopper. I have always wanted to 'do stuff' rather than simply read about it, so last year, I signed up for one of the brave new MOOCs. (I had participated in free, open online courses before, some with more success than others. Otago's Facilitating Online Course kept my attention, although I participated actively for only 4 weeks and I completed and enjoyed Wayne Mackintosh's quick-and-punchy Open Education Resources course last year). I mean no discredit to either, but I learned as much from the experience of being an online student as I did from the actual course content in either course.

But I digress. The xMOOC I (somewhat ambitiously) signed up for was Social Network Analysis, run by Lada Adamic of Stanford on the Coursera platform. And I admit, the fact that it was Stanford played a part in my choice. But I am also interested in social networks; consider myself reasonably intelligent and informed, and I was fairly sure that, whilst I was a complete novice in the subject, judicious use of Google would mean that I would be able to fill in the gaps when they occurred. The course was simple in design: 8 weekly topics composed of online video lectures, some readings and formative tasks, and two summative tasks. Anyone completing the course with an acceptable passing grade would receive a certificate of completion from Stanford (a tempting reward for yoiks with qualifications from the educational outback like myself).

Needless to say, the reality of the course was a little different to my expectations. Whilst I did understand the content of the early weeks, there were times when something was said on one of the recorded lectures that I simply didn't quite 'get'. And sadly, with a recorded lecture, no matter how many times one replays the clip, the lecturer always says exactly the same thing! There were, of course, forums on which I could post a question and someone would get back to me within 24 hours. The trouble with these was, with something like 25,000 people enrolled on the course, the forums were huge and intimidating. Never-the-less I managed to complete the early assignments with a fair level of understanding. (We were required to analyse our own online social networks: I discovered to my chagrin, that my network of Facebook connections is so small and scattered that it barely qualified as a network at all!)

What I found most off-putting about the xMOOC, however, was the number of very obvious experts who had signed up and who (it seemed to me) dominated the forums with highly erudite debates and discussions, leaving very little space for the likes of me. There is something very disconcerting about logging on to a forum taking 20-30min to formulate a well-crafted response to a discussion topic, only to discover that 180 other people had posted in the interim. It was incredibly intimidating and reminded me of the first day of high school, when the new kids, with stiff, too-big uniforms, are shoved to the back of the tuck-shop queue by the seniors, comfortably well-worn and self-assured.

Clearly my foray into the world of xMOOCs was doomed. Like thousands of others who had signed up, I ended, not with a bang, but a whimper. A recent article on the Augmented Trader blog listed the following completion data (for a different course, but most accounts of MOOCs suggest similar data):
Enrolled (clicked “sign me up”): 53,205
  • Watched a video: 53% of those who enrolled
  • Took a quiz: 26% of those who enrolled
  • Submitted first homework: 12% of those who enrolled
Completed the course:
  • 4.8% of those who enrolled
  • 18% of those who took a quiz.
  • 39% of those who submitted the first project.
Still, as many have pointed out, 2650 (5% of 53,000) is still a reasonable number of students, although no New Zealand university would dare post retention rates like that. The fact that the course was free (so no financial loss to students for non-completion) and open (no entry requirements) meant that there would be many tyre-kickers such as myself skewing the data.

Not wanting to write off the phenomenon completely though, I signed up for the Online Learning Design Studio cMOOC run by the Open University, UK. It promised to be all the things that the Stanford MOOC was not: small (only 1000-or-so people) collaborative, constructivist in approach, student centered.  It started three days ago. Before the course opened I had already received 13 emails with various instructions, hints, sites to register for, apologies for broken links, etc. I started ignoring the course emails even before the course had started. (I have received another 10 in the three days since it started... and had I signed up for notifications from forum discussions, that number would be exponentially larger.) I am supposed to be using Twitter, Cloudworks and Google groups. I think I have completed the tasks I am supposed to have done, but there is nothing that indicates confirms that I have.  

And after only three days, the discussion forums are so clogged with posts and proposals that I can't even begin to find my way into a team that proposes to build a project in which I am interested. (Quite honestly, the thought of virtual teamwork with strangers gives me the horrors!)

Clearly I am not cut out for MOOCing. I'm going to persevere a little longer with the OLDSMOOC... (apparently if I complete the first week I will earn a badge!) but I fear I am not cut out for this form of study. Even in the cMOOC format it is too structured for me and the pace is way too quick to allow for cogitation and procrastination. Whether the MOOC will be the disruptive innovation some claim it will be remains to be seen. For me, it was a stress-inducing and unsatisfying way of studying, an educational burger-and-fries from the drive-through, when I'd far rather eat at home.
POST SCRIPT: Following Claire Thompson's comment below, I had a look at the #ETMOOC and have signed up for that one too. It will be an interesting comparison in terms of structure, course design and communication. At first glance, it certainly appears to be a simpler and clearer structure to follow. Interesting how blogging and micro-blogging takes one in unexpected directions! Thanks, Claire!



  1. Jean, I read your post with interest as I am about to embark upon ETMOOC (educational technology and media MOOC I'm wondering how the course, or perhaps I, will deal with forums with 1000+ people commenting and trying to sift through the thousands blog posts! I'll be curious to see if people start to develop new tools (or use existing tools?) that will
    - highlight discussion threads that are receiving a lot of attention
    - allow users to filter for specific content
    - encourage users to form smaller groups
    Good luck with your most recent MOOC experience!
    PS. I think I first 'met' you when I took Otago's Facilitating Online Course with Sarah Stewart. It's nice to connect again :-)

    1. Thanks for the comment,Claire, and yes, lovely to reconnect. I think you are right about the need for tools, existing or otherwise, that enable filtering. I think the OLDSMOOC is trying to do exactly that but in using as many tools as they can to meet the widest range of needs, they overwhelm people like me who subscribe to everything just to try it out! Enjoy your MOOC too - I'd be interested to hear your experiences.