Of MOOCs and Kooks

Okay, I just liked that title. This post is really about MOOCs. And I suppose we are kooks in any meaningful sense of that term. So maybe the title is appropriate after all.

MOOCs are Massive Open Online Courses. There has been a lot of talk about them in the past year- variously presenting MOOCs as a curiosity, a notable evolution in online education, the transformation of higher education, a revolution in education, and the end of all that is good and decent in the world. As with most things, history will be the judge of the transformative/revolutionary power of MOOCs.

But, I am enrolled in two MOOCs right now, and I thought it would be interesting to reflect a little on the experience. The courses I am taking are offered in a joint project between Coursera, which provides the platform for the course, and Berklee College of Music in Boston, which is providing the content. The two courses I am taking both have to do with my other life as a musician- one course is in songwriting, the other is Intro to Music Production.

The basic format of both courses is the same. The six week courses are broken into six sections. There are online video lectures by the professors, Pat Pattison for the songwriting course and Louden Stearns for the Music Production class. The videos are broken into short segments covering a topic or idea. There are online quizzes that reinforce the basic concepts and ideas. At the end of each week there is a project or assignment due in each class.

The Coursera platform has student forums which allow for discussion and interaction, and the instructor for one of the courses is clearly monitoring, as he has added comments several times already. I have to say, the volume of people makes the forums a bit daunting at first (I had to switch email notifications off immediately). But you can create a user profile at whatever comfort level is agreeable to you, and sub-forums are rapidly developing around topics which should make the interaction more manageable. Stearns, who is obviously very comfortable using social networking technology, also immediately created a facebook page for the course, and posted links to google groups and other venues for interaction.

So far, sounds like a pretty basic online delivery of knowledge. But the ‘Massive’ part of the MOOC changes what happens after that. The courses are free, and that increases the volume of students pretty radically. And that means that the likelihood that you are going to get any individual attention from the instructor drops to zero. I don’t say this to denigrate the courses in any way, just to observe the practical reality. Given that, the courses have been constructed to maximize student feedback.

The project due at the end of each week is posted online, and then there is a follow up assignment in which students are required to give feedback to each other on their projects. So the course is pretty much crowd-sourcing the feedback part of learning. Not a bad idea really. If there is a high enough volume of participants, then the feedback should distribute evenly, giving a relatively accurate response to the student work.

At this point its all theoretical. I just started the two classes, and haven’t posted any assignments nor given and received feedback.  I will report when I have some actual experience.

So far though, I am really enjoying myself. The videos are pretty good, the information is thoughtful and well organized, and the quizzes are a great check on how well I understood the videos (you can repeat the quizzes as many time as you like, so if you miss things you can go back and review). In one of the courses there are questions embedded in the videos that work well to reinforce and focus the viewer on the important points. The video format also allows for diagrams and schematics to illustrate ideas. Overall it seems well done and effective.

My immediate thought is that this is a great format for a learner like myself. My motivation is completely intrinsic (I have no interest in grades, certificates or degrees in this material). I can do the work on a schedule that is convenient to me (as long as I keep up week to week- I can do the work whenever I want). And so far, I’m not worried about lack of direct feedback from the instructor.

I am especially intrigued in the projects for the music production class. At the end of this first week we are asked to pick from a list of topics and create a short video teaching that topic using what we learned. Reviewers are given a rubric that asks them to asses the videos in several specific ways and offer comments- not on the video production, but on the content and delivery. Creators are asked to include a brief reflective statement in the video. Again, given enough people participating, it seems like a very effective way to handle the feedback issue, especially since the rubric is quite focused. I’ll post my video and how the review process went sometime next week.

Further updates as I learn more!

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2 Responses to Of MOOCs and Kooks

  1. Robert LaRue says:

    I just finished a Coursa class on film. They discussed mainly films I hadn’t yet seen, so did it for fun… and it mostly was fun. The quizes and final were silly. Too much focus on trivial aspects of the material, though that may have been because of a first-time instructor. The student discussion aspect was hit and miss. Mostly miss. 500+ were in the class so there was a full range of topics and depth of discussion. It was a challenge to slog through most of the dreck to find insightful comments, so I gave that up early on. Fortunately we were not required to interact for the ‘assignments’. I’ve done online courses before and disliked them immensely. This one wasn’t too offensive, so I’ll try another one that will be more out of my field.

  2. Pingback: MOOCs and Kooks Part Deux | The Paper Graders

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