Following our article at the beginning of this year about the rising world of MOOCs we thought it would be useful to enroll on a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) and let you know the ins and outs of what to expect. We sent our colleague Simon into the MOOC world to find out more, here is his story…
As a bit of background into my education I completed an engineering undergraduate degree a few years ago and have been considering postgraduate study for personal interest (rather than career progression) for quite some time.
Starting out, the biggest hurdle I came across was the amount of choice available. There was a real variety of subjects and providers to choose between, along with the actual MOOC study platform, these options are increasing every week. After a few hours of research I chose Coursera as it’s fixed start dates and exams would add some rigidity to an incredibly open way of learning.
When it came to course choice I had the same issue of too much choice making it difficult – a problem which is definitely a good thing in education. I have a personal interest in both music and nutrition – neither of these are related to my undergraduate degree but I am always looking for ways to increase my knowledge in the subjects. For this reason I chose to study Introduction to Digital Sound Design offered by Emory University (USA) and Nutrition for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention offered by the University of California, San Francisco.
At the outset the courses clearly identified the minimum study time required each week, whilst this will vary from student to student it proved to be very useful when scheduling my free time to fit in with the courses. My chosen courses both suggested 2-4 hours a week of study although in practice it did need more time if there were assignments or exams.
The delivery format was similar for both courses – I had to watch a series of video lectures each week and sit mini-tests/quizzes and complete assignments to track my progress throughout. The results of these tests would be used by Coursera in grading me and deciding whether I had passed or failed.
The video lectures are broken down into small sections between 2 and 20 minutes long so fitting individual videos into your day is quite straightforward as you can drop in and out of the course as you wish. However whilst 2-4 hours a week of video lectures seems easy to manage this was not the case when juggling two courses, my work, my family commitments and other hobbies! Something had to give somewhere and it may not come as a surprise that I prioritised my work and family over my MOOCs. Two weeks in I decided to drop out of one course so it made scheduling easier. This decision wasn’t as tough as it could have been because there was a big difference in the level of enjoyment I received from each course.
I dropped out of the nutrition course because I felt the lectures weren’t adding anything to my learning experience, I could have got this information from a book on the subject. To explain this, In each video lecture I had to pause the video several times to copy out the slides which were being shown on-screen and make notes next to them which increased the time estimates dramatically. Both courses suggested additional reading but the Digital Sound Design course excelled at showing you ways to enhance the knowledge you had just learnt, pointing to sources of useful software and setting non-compulsory projects that support what had been learnt as well as being FUN! The course lectured is able to add value to their subject and the way it is delivered and because of this not all MOOCs are created equal.
If I had a lot of free time on my hands or I was struggling with any aspect of the course content I found myself visiting the courses forum pages. The forums were logically laid out and the activity levels from students and the course lecturer were high, many of the forum users were there to give advice rather than ask questions as they were clearly experienced in the field. This made the process of learning at home feel a lot more like a group situation but many others took it one step further and created meet-ups in cities worldwide where small groups would get together to discuss the course content and assignments in more detail.
The exams were set in a typical university format with a mid-term exam set half way through the course with questions on the first half of the course and a final exam on the last half of the course. This is where I expected the MOOC format to fail because the questions are not marked by an individual, they are marked by the Coursera system and therefore the questions were all multiple choice. Contrary to my belief this didn’t make the exams easy as the four possible answers for each question were all very similar, I had to re-read the question and the answers several times and understand the course content comprehensively before I could confidently answer.
The number of courses and subjects covered by MOOCs is increasingly rapidly at the moment as more universities seek to get involved in the trend. This makes the possibility of finding a course that interests you highly likely. However, from my experience of choosing MOOCs, they only cover entry level topics – typically the kind of modules you would study in your first year undergraduate degree. The benefit of this is that the pre-requisite knowledge is quite low and therefore it caters for the wide audience required to be considered a massive open online course. This also means it attracts a real widespread of people. To my amazement in one of the forums I was discussing digital sound design with a 12 year old boy and his dad who were studying together.
Towards the end of the course the forums were increasingly discussing the upcoming final exam and also another course in a similar musical field that started on Coursera a few days after this one would end. I had such a good time both learning the material and studying with my peers around the world that I enrolled on this course as well!
Looking back over my initial MOOC experience it is easy to see that MOOCs are perfect for a broad range of people and circumstances. In my case I was learning to improve my knowledge in areas of interest, this seems to be the main reason my peers were studying, however others were studying for the certificate that is awarded upon passing the course. Unfortunately MOOC certificates currently don’t mean a great deal to anyone other than the awarded individual, most importantly they don’t carry any credit with institutions and universities.
MOOCs aren’t going to replace the studying abroad experience and they can’t replicate face-to-face time with lecturers and professors but they do offer an opportunity to try higher education without spending any money. You will quickly find out whether you are ready to study a full degree and may even help you narrow down your choice of subjects.
Take a look at our blog post for more information about the advantages of studying abroad and good luck with your studies!
Have you signed up for a MOOC yet? What has been your experience? Do you agree with Simon that a MOOC can never replace a study abroad experience? Let us know in the comments below!
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