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Jon Kennard


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MOOCs: What’s in it for you?


Massive Open Online Courses. Have you taken any? TZ's editor Jon Kennard shares his experiences.

I am just about to wrap up my third MOOC in six months. I’m not boasting, promise.

It feels like we (ok, I) talk about MOOCs a lot on TrainingZone - in blogs, features and all over the rest of the site too. That shouldn’t be an issue. After all, it’s just learning. I was spurred into action to write this after reading a short post by Jane Hart, the workplace learning expert. Far be it from me to argue with someone as experienced as her, but in that post, even though she doesn’t directly attribute these views to herself, she repeatedly refers to quotes that MOOCs are part of the old ‘education as acquiring stuff’ model. That MOOCs and flipped classrooms are ‘just adding a new layer onto the old outdated model’. Have a read of her post here.

Might the low completion rate of MOOCs (around 7-10% depending on the stats you read) back up her comments about being part of an outdated model? I’m not so sure. First - I think that MOOCs are now probably too diverse in their structure, format and content to be lumped together in one data set. But - check out this post for some great insight into MOOCs, backed up by some decent data findings.

Take the three I’ve completed so far:

  • Edinburgh University and Coursera - Elearning and digital cultures
  • University of Singapore and Coursera - Reason and Persuasion: thinking through three dialogues by Plato
  • Google - Making sense of data

Elearning and digital cultures

A six week-long course. Interaction with course leaders (of which there were seven or eight) was mostly through a discussion forum where many members were very active (22,000 sign-ups), plus weekly intro videos every Monday that featured each of the professors in turn taking you on a tour of Edinburgh university grounds while also outlining the course content for the week (usually short films on YouTube/Vimeo with several questions to answer on each). A pass or a fail (graded by peers) was determined entirely on the strength of the final project, the creation of a ‘digital artefact’. A deliberately open-ended task and all the more difficult for being so.

There was also a weekly Google Hangout at 5pm every Friday. I learned as much from the forums (socially and collaboratively, please note) as I did from learning on my own. The intro videos initially seemed unnecessary to me but the more I think about it, I think that perhaps they were there to give the course a sense of place, of time, and of history. This was a MOOC that wanted to be an online representation of a degree from Edinburgh University, which I think could have been important in giving the course some weight and import to people. Do courses that don’t offer this context suffer though? I’m not sure.

Reason and persuasion

An eight week-long course. Supposedly six hours of work per week, it could have been double that if you wanted to do all the background research. John Holbo, the tutor, knew his subject matter inside out and upside down, and managed to contextualise the Plato dialogues in such a way that they were fascination and not at all daunting. Most of the learning was through video lectures delivered asynchronously (I watched all of mine in bed - where I do most of my MOOC work).

There were also transcripts of the videos if you didn’t have time to watch them all (each was about 20 minutes long and there was one every day for the eight weeks), and there were also quizzes throughout the course that counted towards half your final mark. The other almost-half was on the final ‘exam’, an 800-1000 word moral dilemma, and there was a 5% gimme for participating in the forum (designed to encourage a bit of discussion more than anything). This course didn’t put such a premium on collaboration but it had a greater variety of media at students’ disposal. It used a more blended approach to achieve its goal of engaged, asynchronous, free learning.

Making sense of data

Designed to take 10-15 hours (for the whole course), Google’s ‘Making sense of data’ was the most autonomous of the three I’ve done so far, in that it basically left you to your own devices. There were two Hangouts, hosted by two instructional designers both wearing Google t-shirts, who talked about the importance of understating data, and how Google Fusion Tables could help you get deeper into your data sets. As someone who had done pretty well in GCSE Maths, and pretty badly in Applied Statistics at university, it was clear that the level of this course was closer to the former. The course offered more flexibility than the other two but less support, and came across to me as more of a ‘sell em cheap, pile em high’ attitude to learning. Ironically, I think Google was after the statistics on this course, casting its net as widely as possible for the greatest uptake. That said, it feels remiss of me to criticise any MOOC, given that these are all free resources and very few things like this existed a few years ago. I did get some value out of the course, even if it did also feel a bit like a interactive promotional campaign for Google Fusion Tables.


As yet, MOOCs are not recognised as qualifications. So, in a KPI-free world of self improvement MOOCs could be seen as the ultimate expression of motivation for learning. Again, not boasting. But there are so many, and so many different reasons - and ways - to study them, that it seems odd to lump them all together. Some offer Statements of Accomplishment, Certificates of Mastery, Certificates of Completion, or nothing at all. It would be good to see some data about whether or not a tangible record of achievement makes a difference to drop-off and completion rates. Likewise the academic institution that hosts the MOOC. I know I’d be probably more inclined to study with an Ivy League University as they often have the best tutors. But more importantly than that, I’d rather finish a course I’ve started, hence I’ve not found an Ivy League course I want to take yet.

Here are some tips to myself for studying MOOCs, based on my experience so far:

  • Don’t undertake a course any longer than six weeks. Any more than this is too daunting and will take over your life.
  • Use the forums. There are people struggling with the same problems as you. Share your experience.
  • Choose based on subject, not institution. You need to be passionate otherwise it’ll just seem like a grind. (NB This is distinct from the need to challenge yourself)
  • Bed is a great time to study. Go to bed 30 mins earlier than normal, get the tablet out and away you go. Coursera’s app is superb (other apps are available etc).
  • Talk to people about these great resources - most people don’t even know MOOCs exist. They could be the solution to skills gaps in your business.

Jon Kennard is editor of TrainingZone. He's a MOOC enthusiast, but after three in quick succession he's looking forward to taking a break.

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Jon Kennard

Freelance writer

Read more from Jon Kennard

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