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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 www.shutterstock.com

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.

Assessment

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.

Reflections

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.