Thoughts on three very different MOOCs

I have recently undertaken a number of ‘MOOCs’ on topics of interest, most recently:

  1. Science, Technology, and Society in China I: Basic Concepts (Coursera)
  2. Internet History, Technology, and Security (Coursera)
  3. Today’s Blended Teacher (Blended Schools) – see some previous posts for work on this (note I skipped the last week)

Now I started all of these very much expecting to just ‘pick’ at certain resources.  This approach is partly based on how I perceive the free/open web – MOOCs, to me, are just another web resource. The key difference is that most are still using some form of hidden web tool such as a Learning Management System (LMS), collaboration and may offer accreditation.

In the instructional approach MOOC courses follow they are offering a structure comparable to section headers in Wikipedia, or the mix of media a newspaper website uses, the structure given to a webinar, etc. etc.  The value of most courses comes from collaboration, with instructor/expert and participants, not their static resources.  Of these three, Blended Schools, running a nice Google+ community and Hangouts, offers more in the collaboration area than the Coursera offerings which both effectively followed the same model:

  1. Lecture video (IHTS supplemented with some excellent creative commons – materials including videos with the experts the course was about)
  2. Knowledge checks within videos (a nice feature of the LMS/VLE platform to keep the flow going)
  3. Some additional reading
  4. Assignments – STSC 3 written papers/IHTS weekly quiz and final test (with optional extra credit written papers).
  5. With forums around all of this (I did not really engage with these nor any of the IHTS meetups which were arranged – the instructor even meeting up in ‘class hours’ around the world with some participants)

This similarity in model is perhaps a result of the two Coursera items being, effectively, stripped down and very introductory undergraduate university offerings.  That said, the assignments were far from what I would expect of an accredited HE course – STSC relied on peer grading (which has led to lots of comments/complaints and even an offer of the instructor remarking papers for people with a particular grievance) and as with most multiple choice quizzes (which do not use remote proctoring or lock down browser) IHTS was open to cheating.  Indeed of the three papers (all c.500 words) on STSC I struggled to see the major benefit in the final paper (possibly due to my misunderstanding of the topic/question I must admit) and thus deliberately did not spend as much time on the answer.  This in itself was an interesting experiment in that the peer grading showed a clear trend that my own perceptions were correct (assignment 1 nearly gained full marks dropping down by assignment 3).  STSC did provide a rubric to help write your answer – now I am normally in favor of this as I think it helps frame the research and keep students on track.  However, I wonder if in a MOOC it is particularly at risk of misuse in allowing for people to ‘avoid class’ but still pass the assignment.  That said, if we take a MOOC as just another web resource (albeit one hidden away on a community or LMS) then rubrics can be a useful guide to the capabilities you should have developed – i.e. the arguments you should be able to form from engaging with the other resources (including people).

Overall I came out of the two Coursera items with some new knowledge I can apply in my work and some fundamental historical basis for knowledge I already held.  However, they’ve done nothing to suggest courses at this scale are more or less effective than ones I have done in the past (such as my online MA) – they are just different.  Indeed, as pointed out by people elsewhere the real problem is likely to be MOOCs led by institutions with limited online instructional design expertise who ignore the work done by so many people over the last few decades.  The problem, no doubt will be picking out the courses which are actually useful to you and not just vanity projects for the instructor, marketing by an institution, making money (via the ‘in app purchase’ route of getting you in then selling you reading, accreditation, etc) or other reason.

Author: iangardnergb

My name is Ian Gardner and I am interested in various topics that can be seen as related to learning, technology and information. To see what I am reading elsewhere, follow me on The Old Reader ( and/or Twitter (@iangardnergb).

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