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An insider’s guide: what it’s really like to study a MOOC

Anyone who has been paying attention to higher education this year will have heard of the MOOC – courses from prestigious universities offered for free online. There’s been great interest in them from…

Time to take a MOOC – Massive Open Online Course – for a test drive. Online course image from

Anyone who has been paying attention to higher education this year will have heard of the MOOC – courses from prestigious universities offered for free online.

There’s been great interest in them from academics and students alike. And the major players are already establishing themselves and their place in the market – edX, Udacity and Coursera to name a few.

Even though there are concerns about plagiarism, increasingly universities are considering giving course credit for completion of these subjects. The evaluation process has already begun in America with a new project by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to assess whether these courses are worthy of credit towards a degree or diploma.

Some Australian universities have already begun to embrace this mode of delivery, while others have warned that offering courses for free may devalue other university offerings.

While the academic commentariat has been debating the challenges and opportunities of MOOCs, not many have looked at the first-person experiences of students.

As an empirical researcher, and having studied at four Australian universities, some of which pride themselves on their online and distance courses, I thought I’d enroll in a MOOC to gain a student perspective.

The experience was illuminating.

The Course

Although there are now almost 200 courses on Coursera, there are very few for someone with my research interests and activities. 25 of the 33 universities are based in the US, and there is a clear bias to science and technology units.

I enrolled in “Gamification”, taught by the University of Pennsylvania’s Kevin Werbach. According to the Coursera website:

“Gamification is the application of game elements and digital game design techniques to non-game problems, such as business and social impact challenges. This course will teach you the mechanisms of gamification, why it has such tremendous potential, and how to use it effectively.”

The course ran for six weeks, with two units covered each week. Each unit comprised 40-60 minutes of video lectures, with Kevin speaking to camera, using slides with a graphic overlay. The delivery was accessible, the content was not particularly incomprehensible, and Kevin was an engaging and pleasant teacher.

Kevin Werbach teaching his MOOC. Coursera

Over 80,000 students enrolled in the Gamification course; at week 6, over 43,000 students had watched lecture videos online. While 43,000 is a large audience, the fact that almost half of enrolled students suggests a general lack of engagement for large swathes of the group.

There were also optional readings for each unit; I didn’t engage with these resources, but clearly some of my peers did.

Supporting the core materials were discussion forums, a wiki, face-to-face meetups and engaged conversations on Twitter and Facebook. Again, I didn’t engage with these supporting materials, but they clearly built a strong and supportive virtual network of students.


There were three areas of assessment for the final grade – four multiple choice quizes worth 35%, three written assignments (peer assessed) that were worth 5%, 10%, and 20% respectively and a final multiple choice exam worth 30%.

My Deakin colleague, Beverley Oliver, has discussed the challenges of the Coursera (and MOOC) assessment regimes, given the large number of students. The multiple choice questions worked well, providing useful feedback, but not all disciplines are able to use multiple choice tests to assess students’ learning, including my discipline of law.

An example of a homework quiz on Coursera. Coursera

The other form of assessment was three short written assignments. Each student is asked to assess five other papers on one or two measures, with a detailed marking rubric.

Assessors are then asked to provide comments on “What I like was…” and “What could have made this submission better was…”. After completing this assessment for five others, students are then asked to assess their own work, both within the marking rubric and providing comments in response to the two questions.

Approximately 12,800 students submitted the first of the three assignments and 10,700 students successfully submitted written assignment 2. Again an impressively large group, but less than 15% of those enrolled completed each assignment.

There are clearly questions around the efficacy of peer review and the difficulty of getting students to provide good feedback – particularly when the waters can so easily be muddied by self-interest.

Certainly, I provided impartial assessment of my peers’ work and identified strengths and weaknesses. This then allowed me to critically reflect on my own work, identifying strengths and opportunities for improvement.

However, in both of the assignments I submitted (I missed one while I was away at a conference), I provided the highest numerical score available. I genuinely think the pieces merited this mark, but this is such a subjective assessment that it provides little comfort.

The platform suggests that the marks are “calculated based on a combination of the grade you received from your peers and the grade you gave yourself”, but fairness should dictate that my own assessment has little influence on these marks.


Like many Australian academics, I have observed the MOOC phenomenon with interest and trepidation.

The course delivery platform is generally equal to the platforms I’ve used at four tertiary institutions where I’ve studied, with a couple of minor improvements (the “chunking” of lectures into short videos; the “vote” function on discussion boards to raise important or interesting topics to the top of the forum; integrating self-test multiple choice questions into video).

However, Australian universities shouldn’t feel that the technology is much more advanced than our existing learning management systems.

Assessment was thoughtfully developed and appropriate for the course content. The feedback and critical self-reflection demonstrate clear pedagogical objectives, but the subjectivity of some of the self assessment presents challenges for the model.

MOOCs are rightly being observed as a disruptive force in higher education. However, until these courses can contribute to the credentials of a degree from a reputable educational institution, they will be a diversion from an integrated, scaffolded degree or diploma.

But for me, I’m proud of my Coursera achievement and my certificate, and will certainly be adding it to my CV to impress potential employers and others, and I think many Australian and international students will too.

My Coursera certificate.

Join the conversation

14 Comments sorted by

  1. Chris McGrath

    Senior Lecturer at University of Queensland

    Thanks James for this illuminating reflection on a MOOC. The disclaimer on your 'Statement of Accomplishment' was interesting to read as well.

  2. Comment removed by moderator.

  3. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    There is a subset of courses that MOOCs might do well - eg statistics or theoretical based technical subject. A larger set that they won't, ie anything that requires hands-on experience - such as experimental science - or higher order analysis or argument - such as anything beyond 1st year Humanities.

    Universities are something of a cartel and they won't be giving recognition to MOOCs (unless they offer the MOOC themselves) until they are absolutely forced to. How many professional degree courses…

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    1. Chris Booker

      Research scientist

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      I suspect you're right about the kinds of subjects that are able to be taught MOOC-style. It certainly seems the available courses so far subscribe to what you're saying.

      I think part of problem for how to integrate things like MOOCs with the existing university education is the traditional format of a 'degree' needing to be 3 - 4 years of full-time study, and this kind of conflates the whole issue of how to integrate experience from a stand-alone module. Where did this standard format come from…

      Read more
    2. Paul Pentony

      IT Professional

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      I started the MIT course on Circuit Analysis. I was very impressed. - I found it a much better learning experience than the average first year science course. It did actually have lab work - obviously using a virtual laboratory. For all practical purposes this was not much different to using bread boards to mock up circuits.

      Importantly there were no multi choice questions in the assessments - the system understood basic algebraic formulas.

      I could imagine having a virtual titration laboratory…

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    3. Jack Arnold


      In reply to Sean Lamb

      A skeptical but realistic evaluation, Sean.

      The universities extended course length to grow bureaucratic empires and increase revenue, there is no doubt. Still, it was important to only teach for 36/52 weeks per year, necessitating four calendar years to complete 12 terms of 'work'.

      However, a competent student can easily complete a standard course in less time, although they usually require special permission from the Dean to attempt to "run up the mountain".

      Fortunately, excellence has…

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    4. Linus Bowden

      management consultant

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Sean, I think one of the big assumptions being made at the present stage of this debate is that existing university structures will remain stable, or as you say, resist like hell any perceived threat to their current cartels and extortion-like funding arrangements. But not all current universities are equal. In fact, I predict that for the elite brand-name universities, the rivers of gold will grow from their on-campus college degrees. My bet is that far from cannibalising on-campus degree fee income…

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  4. Kevin Orrman-Rossiter

    Research Partnerships Officer at University of Melbourne

    Good article and a good reflection of the Cousera offering. Like you I decided to experiment with a MOOCS course and found it quite useful. It fits with the type of course that can be presented well in the format. I enrolled in "Writing in the Sciences" offered via Stanford (I received a "with distinction" statement of accomplishment). One aspect i found most useful in this course was editing other participants writing and giving feedback and providing the same for 10 other students over 2 writing exercises. This worked surprisingly well and I learnt a lot how different people see the same piece of writing - invaluable for reaching diverse audiences. I know of other friend who are completing astronomy and astrophysics courses - they seem to be enjoying and learning from them. These could certainly fulfill a need for me in "interest" graduate level courses - something I intend to continue to look at.

  5. Ian J. Faulks

    NRMA-ACT Road Safety Trust Research Scholar, Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety (CARRS-Q) at Queensland University of Technology

    James, I too did Kevin Werbach's Gamification course. I echo and endorse your critique and comments . . . thank you for putting your thoughts together on this! My view is that taking a MOOC – Massive Open Online Course – for a test drive is highly recommended.

    The only difficulty for me was - as in the case of your conference travel - I was actually travelling a lot during the six weeks and so the assessments became a bit of a hassle. The message is that the recommended time to be set aside…

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  6. Jack Arnold


    Thank you for a good article James.

    The University of New England Armidale NSW has led the world in distance education since 1955. Many similar programmes in Australia have been organised by UNE graduates in Distance Education. The UK Open University came to Armidale in the early 70s to discover how to run distance learning, then did their own thing.

    MOOCs appear to be the natural progression from the original paper based system. However, as a veteran of too many academic courses, I still value greatly the live face to face interaction with real students discussing, debating, arguing academic content. This is real education.

    1. Rob Crowther

      Architectural Draftsman

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      ‘This is real education.’

      I doubt it.

      Real education is teaching to the whole bell curve and not just the narrow part that formal education targets.

      Real education is the time where you take the material, find a quiet spot for yourself, and sit and read, review and most importantly think. Nothing is so intrusive then having some ‘think aloud’ type nattering in your ear when you are trying to assimilate the material.

      The only interaction that is useful is when someone else has bothered…

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  7. Geoff Taylor


    Could you complete this sentence for me please:
    "While 43,000 is a large audience, the fact that almost half of enrolled students suggests a general lack of engagement for large swathes of the group."

    1. Kevin Orrman-Rossiter

      Research Partnerships Officer at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Geoff Taylor

      I would suspect the line was to suggest "that almost half of the enrolled students did not complete the prescribed work suggests a general lack of engagement for large swathes of the group." I interpret this that half (that is 21,500 students) were engaged - a number I am sure any University would be keen to quote!

  8. Pat Pughe-Parry

    logged in via Twitter

    I will be starting my first MOOC course in January and I am looking forward to the experience as it is on design and interpretation of infographics. Something totally new.

    The drop out rate is not unexpected. I don't know how South African universities compare with others worldwide but our first year drop out rate is horrendous which costs the country millions of Rands.

    At least with MOOC's sign-up is free and for those who impulsively sign up it is not a catastrophe if they drop out.

    I understand MOOCs to be a platform to broaden one's knowledge on a particular topic not to get a certificate or grade.

    The proof of the pudding is how people can implement what they learn in the workplace not what qualifications they have.