Friday, 19 October 2012

MOOCs - My Experience So Far

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are becoming more common, and from the numbers signing up certainly seem very popular.  For example, the course that I am currently doing (World History since 1300 from Princeton on Coursera) has over 80,000 signed up and 1,700 submitted the first assignment.

There are several university partnerships that have sprung up to offer MOOCs for free, the best known being Coursera (originally Stanford, Princeton, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania and now many more), and EdX (MIT, Harvard, Berkeley).  There are also a number of other providers, such as Udacity, Academic Room and others, which either focus on one subject area (Udacity is IT focused, for example) or offer one-off video lectures and articles rather than fully formed courses.

So what is it like as a student on one of these courses?  My experience so far has been largely very positive, with only one or two very small niggles.

Main Screen of the History of the World since 1300 course on Coursera

This is the main menu screen of the course, which is based around two weekly video lectures, plus recommended text and the forums.  These latter have been very active and have provided some valuable peer-to-peer learning, as people discuss issues and offer links to additional reading and video resources.

The video lectures menu

The video lectures are broken down into 10-15 minute segments, with embedded quizzes at the end of each one, but the main assessments comes from the weekly essay assignments.  We are given a choice of 3 topics and need to pick one on which to write our essay.  These are then assessed by five peers, using a rubric covering argument, evidence and eloquence, and a score given which is the average of the peer scoring.  As an incentive, if you don't evaluate your peers' essays, you can't get to see you own score!

The quality of the lectures has been very good, and the Professor and one of his graduate students have taken an active part in the forum discussions, making it possible to pose questions and get informed responses (as well as well aimed questions to seed the discussions).  Technically the VLE system has been working well, with the only problem being having to scroll through lots of material to get to the most recent posts (at the bottom) - which was raised early on and that they have tried to fix by adding a 'newest first' button in each forum thread.

One minor niggle, which several people have reported on the forums, has been lack of feedback to the essays.  In addition to giving a numeric score, peers are supposed to write comments under each section.  However, many people seem to be just receiving one or two lines (or one or two words!) as feedback, or are only getting written feedback from 1 or 2 of the 5 people who reviewed their essay.    

Many people have also been discussing the issues that arise from so many of the enrolled students having English as a second language, as those studying the course come from all around the world.  There have been lively discussions of how to score someone who is clearly trying hard but having trouble expressing themselves, versus someone who just can't be bothered to write clearly or doesn't have the understanding of the course material.

This particular course doesn't offer a certificate, although many other Coursera courses do.  This doesn't matter to me personally, as I'm doing the course out of personal interest, but it has been mentioned as being of concern by some students.  Overall it has been a great experience so far, and I have just submitted my second essay assignment and have my fingers crossed I get a good grade!


  1. I recently did a Coursera class and really enjoyed it too! One thing I would add is to take note of how much time they say the class will take each week. For mine it was 4-5 hours, which I dismissed, but it really did take up that much time. I didn't get involved in any forum discussion either, which will add more time.

    It'll be interesting to see how MOOCs develop and if employers will accept them as a valid qualification.

  2. Hi Michelle
    Thank you for commenting :) Yes I agree it really does take a good deal of time, especiallyif you want to get the most out of the course.

    On the course I'm doing the lectures are 1 hour each, and there are two posted per week, and they have quizzes embedded in them which also take time. Then there is the essay to complete each fortnight, which can take several hours of thought, writing and finding citations. Add the (very active) forum discussion and also textbook reading into that, and it's easy to spend over 5 hours a week on it.