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Are MOOCs all they’re hyped up to be? Two enthusiasts share their experiences


My name is Erna and I’m an intern at Saffron Interactive. After reading our last blog post about MOOCs, I became curious and thought I’d give it a go and enrol in one of them.

After browsing the catalogues of courses starting in October on Edx, Coursera, Udacity and CourseSites, I signed up for Crafting an Effective Writer: Tools of the Trade.

The process was straightforward and a quick browse of the course gave me all the   information I needed about navigation, technical requirements, assessments, ways to interact with other students, and even drop-out rates.

As an undergraduate student, I’m used to face-to-face lessons, so a full online learning experience is new to me, and that’s why I asked some active users of MOOCs about their experiences. Antonella, a Senior Instructional Designer at Saffron and Dimitra, an intern like me, answered my questions.

You have both taken MOOCs – what’s it like to learn fully online?

Dimitra:  What I really enjoy is the fact that there is pluralism of ideas and multiculturalism. As courses are open, you have the opportunity to discuss and collaborate with people of different backgrounds and ages. I collaborated on a project with a team of six spread around the globe. It was a challenge because of the time difference, but it gave me valuable experience working with a remote and multicultural team.

Antonella: I believe that online education can potentially allow for a much richer experience than a traditional face to face course. MOOCs are the early stage of online education and the pedagogical model they propose is a challenging one. Also, MOOCs are technology dependant so sometimes courses don’t work as initially envisaged by the organisers. But I find MOOCs a fun way to learn and I really like the social aspect of it. 

Have you experienced any issues with MOOCs?

Dimitra:  From a user’s perspective, one issue is crowded forums. Last year I enrolled in an interesting course called the Fundamentals of Online Education, but it was suspended because of technical issues with a tool the organisers decided to use.

Antonella: It can be a bit cumbersome to follow discussions. Also, some courses are designed so that to fully participate, you need to set up accounts with social networks or have your own blog. So, although this allows you to stay connected, it can be time consuming or even a bit overwhelming especially to those not so keen on technology.

Would you recommend a MOOC to anyone?

Dimitra: Whoever enrols should know that most MOOCs are delivered in English.  So a good command of the language is necessary to understand the content material, complete assignments and communicate with others. Also, if achieving a formal certificate is your motivation, then you’ll be disappointed because most MOOCs don’t offer them yet.

Antonella: MOOCs demand an active approach to learning, so it’s not about listening to lectures, reading papers and taking an online knowledge test. A MOOC is usually designed so that the learning experience is shared with others and new knowledge is created via these interactions. Learning is not even confined within the “online cohort”, as learners can create further learning opportunities outside the platform. You have to be prepared to use online tools to contribute to discussions, share your work and communicate with the others.

Critics point out that a large number of people don’t complete courses. How do you explain this?

Dimitra: I’ve completed five and like me many others find this way of learning interesting, rewarding and fun. I imagine some people enrol because they know MOOCs offer flexibility, and are free. It may be that some people enrol and simply complete the part of the course that they’re most interested in. I guess that some people underestimate MOOCs and may think that they’re not “serious” courses. But when they start doing the work they realise that they’re in fact very “serious” and require commitment.

Antonella:  I don’t see this as an issue. People pay subscriptions to go to the gym and they hardly go. That doesn’t mean that gyms are not a suitable way to exercise. Let’s not forget that MOOCs are a new phenomenon and although the drop-out rate is high, there is an increasing interest; more and more institutions are now offering MOOCs and the corporate world is looking at their model with a certain interest.

Because of the large amount of users, learning material can’t be tailored to individuals or different learning styles. Previous knowledge, strengths or experience are not considered. Isn’t that a step back from what we know about the philosophy of learning?

Dimitra: I believe that education should be personalised so that an individual’s need is addressed. In that respect MOOCs can’t offer that. At least not yet. Educational science is trying to find ways to achieve this, but only technology will define what the next step of online education will be. And obviously the instructional approach is also key to successful learning. 

Antonella: I think that online education is still at its early stages so MOOCs are currently a work in progress. However it’s also true that through MOOCs, academic institutions are testing online courses on a very large scale, and one can see that that lots of effort is being put into the instructional approach so that education can be delivered effectively to the learners in this new way.

Do you think that taking MOOCs helps in the working world?

Dimitra: I think so, for instance, Coursera offers a Careers Service where companies can find candidates who’ve completed courses relevant to their business.

Antonella: At Saffron we’re encouraged to take courses for professional development; we have a culture that really facilitates taking MOOCs, especially when courses are in areas where the company wants to further develop – I’m thinking of games, gamification, or creative design, just to name a few. So, as employees we can keep up to date and then apply our learning to real projects.

Do you see MOOCs being utilised in the corporate world?

Dimitra: I think MOOCs offer a rather dynamic way of learning and they‘re good at connecting employees who work far apart. Also, people in their twenties see technology as an integral part of their daily way to communicate with others, buy things, find and share information. So, I think they expect to be educated and trained in the same way.

Antonella: Face to face training seems more and more to be replaced with blended solutions. As an instructional designer I also see the profession becoming more challenging and exciting as we’ll have to design the architecture for new complex learning interactions.  

Finally, do you have any advice for people considering taking a MOOC?

Dimitra and Antonella: Yes, have an open mind and just go and do it.

After finishing the interview, I returned to my course with a different perspective. There are two ways I can profit from MOOCs. Firstly, I can gain knowledge in subjects I’m interested in, and I can learn something new whenever and wherever I want. Secondly, MOOCs help me keep up with innovative ways of delivering education and training. So as a future Instructional Designer I realise that it’s essential I take MOOCs and experience them from the learner’s perspective.

Now I am really excited to start the first lesson of my first Massive Open Online Course!

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