So, You Want to Take a MOOC

MOOCThe wave of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) continues to cause ripples throughout higher education, but the messages seem mixed. Headlines like “MOOCs going mainstream? This may be the year” and “The Dark Side of MOOCs: Big Problems with Massively Open Online Courses” leave some confusion in their wake.

MOOCs were a popular, and controversial, topic of conversation during a recent meeting with three of my colleagues. They feel the pressure to create MOOC initiatives, but there is little consensus within their organizations about what a MOOC consists of and what the student experience might be like. Even seasoned educators and administrators haven’t reached a consensus on the role of these open online courses, though many see the potential. What do you need to think about before signing up?

MOOC Learning Basics

Understanding that the term MOOC is not standardized, and currently includes a wide range of features and experiences, the best we can do is take a snapshot of what the landscape looks like right now. Here are some of the basic elements you can expect as an enrolled learner:

  • Defined schedule: Many MOOCs have specific start and end dates. Resources and course materials are often available before and after, but activities for participants are planned and scheduled within a certain timeframe usually ranging from two weeks to two months or more.
  • Peer-to-peer interaction and review: With hundreds or even thousands of students participating in a single course, you can imagine that one instructor isn’t enough to go around. Many MOOCs use group activities and rely on collaboration among classmates, including feedback and grading.
  • Flexible, student-driven activities: You can expect to have some choice in what you do and how you learn in a MOOC. Options can include personal blog posts, social media updates, attending live or recorded lectures, responding to classmates in threaded discussion forums, tests and quizzes, and other types of assignments. It will also be up to you to keep up with scheduled events in the course.
  • Evidence of participation: Not all open courses offer it, but many provide some sort of certificate of completion that might be automatically generated and sent via email, or associated with formal review of your assignments. Opportunities to earn digital badges may be available, as in Deakin University’s MOOCs. Academic credit is also a possibility with some MOOCs, usually requiring advance coordination, additional evaluation of your work in the course, and often a fee.
  • Web-based content and interaction: From video lectures and demonstrations to multimedia presentations and discussion boards, MOOCs are like most other online courses in providing access to materials – much of which is located across the Web, but often with a central hub for course announcements and other communication.

MOOCs are also offered by a variety of groups and on different platforms, such as companies (e.g., Coursera, Udacity), organizations (e.g., edX), and academic institutions in partnership with these groups or on their own via learning management system (e.g., Blackboard, Canvas). Note that every MOOC is a little different from the rest, so it’s important to do some research and have a good idea of what will be involved before you get started in any specific course.

Why do you want to take a MOOC?

Why would you choose this format instead of a traditional academic course, workshop, or other type of learning environment? There are benefits and challenges to consider based on what you want and need from an online course.

Two of the primary criticisms of MOOC learning environments are the (often, but not always) lack of instructor presence and low student completion rates. If these are priorities for you and your reason for enrolling, you may want to research course instructor reviews, take a closer look at who provides feedback in the course and how, and make sure you have the time and motivation to see the course through to the end.

Other items that should be on your MOOC selection checklist include:

  • Your goals for participating: What do you want to do – earn academic credit, engage in professional development, enhance your professional networking? A recent article from PBS’ profiles multiple students each with different reasons for enrolling in “the cheapest and easiest way to learn anything.” Identifying your goals up front can guide your research and selection.
  • What you want to study: Access is one of the primary benefits of the MOOC format. With so many to chose from (Coursera alone offers almost 500 courses) this format allows access to topics you might not be able to study in your local area, and at low-or no-cost.
  • Who you want to study with: If you want to learn from an industry leader or famous professor, many are involved in MOOCs at their institutions or are creating their own courses through services like Udemy. While you may not have a lot of direct contact with the instructor, you will have access to his or her expertise through their materials and course design.
  • How you want to participate: Do you like watching videos online? Would you prefer real-time interactivity with classmates? Do you like to read and take tests or write and build projects? Look for sample lessons and other ways to test drive a MOOC before you register. Some of the most “open” courses provide access to all content.

As more learners experience individual MOOC offerings, the more you’ll be able to find out about each course in advance. Conduct an Internet search for the course title you are considering to see if students are writing about their experience. You can also find MOOC reviews and ratings on sites like

Trends to Watch

A lot has changed in the few years that have passed since the earliest MOOCs and MOOC-like experiences were offered in 2007 and 2008. While the jury is still out on what the future of the massive open online course will be, you can follow the latest developments in these areas:

  • Spin-offs and alternative formats: Look for open course options that tweak the MOOC approach to focus on particular subjects, desired results, and types of interaction. A new DOCC (Distributed Open Collaborative Course) offered through 17 universities and focusing on a common topic – with different sources of expertise and assignments, and no structured syllabus – is just one example.
  • Global reach and opportunity: While writing this post I received a press release announcing a new MOOC initiative from a consortium of universities in China that will use the edX platform to increase access to courses. The edX platform was also recently adopted by France’s Ministry of Higher Education and Research to extend online education options in that country.
  • Continued research: Just this week, the Gates Foundation announced two new grants to help Duke University “examine how large employers are using these massive courses … to identify potential workers and aid in professional development” and “analyze peer-to-peer interactions in introductory … MOOC classes.” Educational researchers are at work investigating the many approaches to open online learning, and those who are teaching and administering these courses are reporting their practical experiences and lessons learned.

Is a MOOC right for you?

Educator, and experienced MOOC student, Debbie Morrison shares that learning in an open course can be different from other kinds of online learning experiences. It requires specific skills and characteristics, beyond the basics of self-discipline, time management, and persistence. Morrison states that “open learning is self-directed, where the learner sets his or her goals, creates a learning path, and selects resources and tools accessible within a network.”

I agree with Morrison’s emphasis on setting goals. Being part of a MOOC can be really overwhelming in terms of the number of people involved, amount of information presented, and technology expectations, but knowing how you will define your own success is a good place to begin the experience. Take a look at her self-defined levels for participation (course auditor, active learner, and course completer) as a model for creating your own categories.

My first experience with MOOCs was with David Wiley’s Introduction to Education in 2009. I admit that I didn’t finish the course, or the two I registered for after that one, but there was a benefit to being a part of each one, including the launch of my first blog. (For the record, I did earn a certificate of completion in Google’s Power Searching Course last year.)

As with other online learning formats, MOOCs won’t be the answer for every student, but the experience is flexible and accessible enough for you to give it a try if you think it’s a good match for your needs. With so much choice in the process, this kind of learning may have benefits for you.

What are your questions about MOOC participation? Share your concerns and recommendations with us here.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog