What I Learned From a MOOC

This summer, while my students and colleagues were on holiday, I sent myself back to school. To be more specific, I joined my first ever MOOC. For those who are unaware of the meaning behind this slightly absurd acronym, it stands for Massive Online Open Course – a web-based educational phenomenon that is gaining popularity among post-secondary institutions.

There were over 31,000 students signed up in this one course alone! Imagine that many bodies in a university lecture hall. The class was offered through the website Coursera, which hosts over 300 FREE online courses from many different universities around the world. The demand for online education has grown so exponentially that the New York Times dubbed 2012 as “The Year of the MOOC.” In its first year Coursera attracted 1.7 million users – a level of growth that leaves Facebook eating its dust. The site currently has over 9.5 million students enrolled from 195 countries. Since their rapid explosion, there have been hundreds of articles written about MOOCs. Many authors discuss the pedagogical challenges of accommodating thousands of students. Some applaud post-secondary institutions for their efforts to empower millions through learning. Others question whether MOOCs are yet another over-hyped educational fad.


It was actually a former colleague of mine that recommended Coursera to me after a social psychology experience she had found fascinating and useful. This piqued my curiosity for two reasons. First of all, I had recently read a book on epigenetics and was interested in pursuing the topic further. Coincidentally, Coursera was offering an introductory epigenetics course starting in July and ending right before school started. How convenient! Secondly, as a teacher experimenting with blended learning, I thought the experience might give me a better understanding of my students. Therefore, I decided to investigate online education for myself in hopes that I could bring something back to the classroom beyond the captivating course content. Without further ado I clicked “Enroll.”

The epigenetics course was offered by the University of Melbourne and consisted of 6 weeks of video lectures, online reading, discussion forums, a Facebook group, quizzes and a written assignment that was peer assessed. I learned a lot about epigenetics. But I also discovered what its like to be a learner in a virtual classroom.

#1. Online school is boring. 
Let me start by saying that I love the topic of epigenetics. It is a subject that blows my mind and gets me totally excited. I have very few friends with science backgrounds to engage in discussion, but I still try to sneak it into conversations. I will tell anyone and everyone who will listen about X-inactivation and genomic imprinting. I even have “epigenetics” as my daily Google alert! My point is that despite my intrinsic motivation to learn about the subject, I could not sit through one single video lecture. 

Watching video lectures was not an effective way for me to learn. While the content of the lectures was interesting, the way it was presented did nothing to engage me. I simply could not sit through an entire slideshow of text and pictures while listening to the sound of the professor’s soothing voice – especially when things got really technical. These online lectures ranged from only 6-17 minutes in length, but I found it difficult to stay focused. Perhaps it’s just because the videos in this course were not very stimulating – mostly text, a few pictures and a slightly monotonous lecturer. I may have just gotten too used to videos made by Veritasium and Crash Course with their high production values and humorous interludes. I think what I’ve learned here is just further confirmation that straight lecture as a method of content delivery is truly dead. Students need choice, variety and interactivity. This is nothing new, but I’m glad I got to experience it personally so that I can remind myself never to give a 45 minute powerpoint on photosynthesis. I can better appreciate the struggle to stay awake.

#2. My computer is a weapon of mass distraction.
Watching a video on my computer is way too distracting. In a lecture hall there is not much else to do but sit and listen. My MacBook, on the other hand, has Facebook, Twitter, Tetris Battle etc…I cannot stay focused on the lecture because the temptation to see what else is going on is too great and just a click away. Although the animations were extremely useful, I would have preferred to keep my computer shut and read a textbook. I’m not saying that I don’t have the ability to keep myself on task while using my computer – I do. But only when the task at hand is actively engaging me. Writing this post, designing a learning activity, updating my blog etc…are all tasks that require me to think and be creative. Watching a video is simply too passive. If I can’t do it, why do I expect my students’ to be able to? I think as educators (especially in a one-to-one laptop school) we need to explicitly teach students ways to manage distractions in the virtual environment. This is something I want to investigate further (for myself too!) and will be interested to see if there is anything put in place already at my new school.

These two points got me thinking yet again about the flipped classroom. It seems to be the go-to approach for teachers who are required to cover a huge amount of content and I can see why. I have even made a few screencasts myself. However, I now know that I would absolutely dread watching a video of a lecture every single night unless there was something active for me to do while watching – a quiz, questions to answer, a reflection, a Google hangout etc… There have got to be other methods used as well – not just screencasts – to keep it fresh and interesting.

#3. Mastery learning is an effective approach.
This course was designed so that we all started and ended at the same time, but throughout the course we could work at our own pace. I really appreciated this approach because there was just enough guidance in terms of timing to keep us on track. Structuring the course week by week gave me a way to manage my time – one or two lectures per day, quiz, then a day off – without being overwhelmed. For example, the resources for week two were not made available until week two actually began. You couldn’t get too far ahead yet you were penalized in marks if you fell too far behind. There was incentive to keep up, but you could not rush through. I know some students complained about this approach, but I felt it helped me self-regulate. At the end of each week there was a multiple choice quiz, which you could attempt up to three times. I found them to be a useful gauge of my understanding because they were not purely based on memorization. You had to apply your knowledge of the course content to answer the questions. They were also more difficult than typical multiple choice tests in that more than one answer could be correct. This really forced you to think about the question and challenge your understanding of the material. After submitting the quiz you received instant feedback in order to evaluate your learning. You could then go back and re-watch a video or check the discussion forum or Facebook page to get extra help. Finally you could try the quiz again with similar types of questions.

I took a similar approach with my students last year except the quizzes were not open book, were purely formative and could be re-done as many times as needed. I think after this experience I will continue with this method.

#4. I need to be challenged to be motivated.
While I found the quizzes to be sufficiently challenging and great benchmarks of progress, I was really looking forward to the final written assignment. It was not available until week six so I had no idea what it would be other than peer assessed. I anticipated that it might be an opportunity to choose a topic within the course that we could explore deeper – possibly a research report, literature review or something along those lines. I was intrigued and excited, but ended up disappointed. It turned out to be four short answer questions based on the last week’s lectures. Only the fourth question required any application. The rest was basically just copy and paste from the lecture notes. The word limits for each question were even so small that further exploration of the topic was very limited. I only read two extra journal articles. There was not even enough room to put proper citations. And so faced with what I believed to be quite a menial and useless task, I put it off. When I finally got around to it, I barely put in the effort.

I recently read an article about how progress in meaningful work leads to higher motivation. I think this is something all teachers can relate to. Given the choice between planning a new classroom activity versus filling in paperwork, I will choose the former. I definitely procrastinate on agenda items that I feel have little or no use to me. Students need challenging tasks that are worthwhile i.e. not fill-in-the-blank packets and tests. They will rise to the occasion if given the opportunity.

#5. I checked the Facebook group more than the discussion forum.
Even though the teaching assistants and professor only answered questions in the discussion forum, I rarely ever went there. I found myself much more engaged with the Facebook group than the course learning management system. I just found it more convenient and more inviting. People would share videos and articles they had found (including myself), deliberate over quiz questions, get clarification on concepts, but also just be social and discuss why they had joined the course, where they were from etc…I think the take away message here is that we need to be where the students are. Forcing them to use MOODLE, Edmodo etc…does not always work. An LMS is not a place they naturally go. Learning is social and if we want it to continue in the virtual environment than we need to embrace the media that the students are using. Again I think giving options here is key.

In the end I don’t think online education can ever replace a more traditional schooling experience. There are many reasons for that, but science especially is a subject that needs to be explored in a more practical, hands on sense. This was still a great learning experience for me. Walking a mile in a student’s shoes helped reinforce some notions I already had and opened my eyes to the challenges that learners may face in a blended environment.


This is a much better article about what it’s like to take a MOOC:


NY Times Article on Universities Joining MOOCs


A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning by the US  Department of Education:


Association for Learning Technology on the Challenges of MOOCs


Scientific American Article on Science Education and MOOCs


Image URL:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/mathplourde/8620174342/sizes/l/in/photostream/


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