Wondering what all the hoopla is around Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), Barbara Parmenter, a lecturer in Tufts Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning department, signed up last spring to take two MOOCS:

  • Introduction to Databases, a course offered by Stanford for the second time through its own application called Class2go
  • Fundamentals of Online Education, a new course developed by Georgia Tech and delivered by the education company Coursera

A self admitted skeptic of online courses particularly MOOCs, Parmenter had several goals in mind when she signed up to take the courses:

  • Get familiar with online course instruction in case she ended up teaching in this format
  • Experience what it was like to be a student in a MOOC
  • Study things that she could take back into her face-to-face classroom
  • Come to know of things that she could use in a more blended learning approach at Tufts like flipping her class – have students learn content online and then use class time to apply that content.
  • Learn and update her own skills

Parmenter was also deeply concerned with the rapidly increasing inequality in the United States, and that education was now a factor in increasing it rather than reducing it.   She wondered if here at Tufts she was part of the problem rather than solution and that maybe MOOCS could be a viable lower cost way to an education.

The MOOC Experience

 Parementer was one of 64,127 people who initially registered for the Intro to Database course.   Out of this, 20,836 people turned in some work; 4,854 received a “statement of accomplishment”; and 1,927 received “statement of accomplishment with distinction,” (75% of weighted score plus at least 50% of “challenge level” exercise score).  Parmenter kept up with the course work for three weeks but then dropped out because she couldn’t devote the needed time.

Over 40,000 people enrolled for the Fundamentals of Online Education course.  However, Coursera stopped this course after two weeks due to a chaotic start. Below are Parmenter’s reflections on what she learned from taking these two MOOCs.

Bottom Line

I was really impressed by how much I learned in the three weeks I stayed in the Intro to Database course. The failure of the The Fundamentals of Online Education course was instructive in how difficult it is to organize an online course, especially a massive one, but again, I had some favorable impressions, unlike many bloggers and writers who jumped on its demise as proof that MOOCs can’t work or that traditional universities don’t understand MOOCs.

But your first question might be, why did I only stay 3 weeks and how is that a useful experience?  My short stay was because the Databases course did indeed turn out to be a real course in terms of time required to actually learn what was being taught. Since I didn’t have the time to put in to really learn (it was taking me 8-10 hours a week to keep up), I quit.  I realized that as with a “real course”, you can’t simply watch videos and dip in once in a while and actually learn much.  Score one for MOOCs…

I question whether a non-technical course could succeed as well as the Databases course in which student work was all auto-checked and you got feedback immediately in the form of error messages, none of it by a human.  On the other hand, I have heard of good experiences of others, so if I ever have the time to try again, I’d like to take a course that involves more peer/instructor feedback.  I have not experienced the “peer grading” approach but would like to try.

Miscellaneous Key Points

My fellow students were an amazing resource – for me, they really made both courses a valuable learning experience.  This was the biggest take-away for me and has made me think a lot about my Tufts classes and how I might facilitate more of that.  Even for the failed Fundamentals of Online Education course, the post-mortem discussion by participants was infinitely more educational and productive than the articles about its demise.

Taking a MOOC is as hard as taking any other class, possibly harder due to less support.  It take time and very good time management and study skills.  What you learn is dependent on your level of effort.  Duh, I should obviously know that. But it is good to be reminded of that.

Creating a really good MOOC requires a lot of work and innovative thinking.   Some requirements that I see:

  • Plan carefully and comprehensively and then learn by doing.  The Databases course instructors and organizers clearly had the experience of having done this once before, and were really, really organized.  This had to be a huge investment of time not only in preparing the materials and thinking out the process, but in revising and learning from the first round of the course.
  • Use a variety of tools to suit a variety of learning styles: short lecture videos (and different formats for these, including transcripts), presentations, core assignments, practice exercises, textbooks, web resources, case studies, etc. The Databases course had all of these, and I ended up using all of them.
  • Continue to experiment with new tools (e.g., the TA discussion sessions in the Databases course experimented with different tools for interaction)
  • Keep up with pedagogical research and best practice for online environments such as short videos with interactive exercises.  Little things make a huge difference.  The Databases instructor would write or make drawings on her powerpoints during the video, which I thought at first was superfluous.  But I soon realized that’s what kept me watching and listening. It fascinated me that this could be an attention-retaining strategy.  Message to Tufts: I want a WACOM tablet!

There are several types of people who enroll in MOOCs (ok, this is from my very limited perspective on my fellow 64,000 participants and some friends and relatives, not any research!)

  • People who enroll in a MOOC or many MOOCs and never do any of them (e.g., my cousin)
  • People who may watch the videos and be passive observers
  • People like me who start the work but don’t complete it
  • People who do all the work
  • People who really go the extra mile to complete all the work at a really high level of performance (1,927 out of over 64,000 for the Databases course)

MOOCs are sink or swim for students, and only a small fraction swim…but boy you learn a lot by trying to stay afloat!  If I gave the same level of support to my Tufts students, they would be really, really unhappy…but maybe I’m giving too much support?

Trust the (serious) students

This was clear in the Databases course but also in the failed Fundamentals of Online Education course.  The post-mortem discussants talking about the failed course largely agreed that the instructor should not have been so worried about the chaos and complaints, was too hyper-focused on organization.  They argued that serious students will self-organize. That was food for thought. In fact, the post-course discussion among students is so good and useful that it may be worth signing up for a MOOC just to get access to those discussions as a way of exploring MOOC learner experiences.

Stay focused on the serious learners?

The Databases instructor was successful, I think, in part because she was pleasant and encouraging to everyone in what were obviously scheduled e-mails (not responses), but she clearly focused the course on the serious learners.  She and her TA did not respond to the many e-mails from people who couldn’t find this or that resource or complained they didn’t understand the lecture, etc.  Gradually those e-mails dropped away and you could see the serious learners were left, and they helped each other.

But if I ‘m concerned with inequality, what does that mean for those students who don’t have the study and time management skills to be successful in an online course?  Clearly, they will struggle and that’s a BIG problem.  Many proponents of online education in the news media are arguing that online education is a way to reach students who don’t have the assets for a residential college experience, but many of these people are also going to lack the study and time management skills to effectively learn from an online course.

Barbara Parmenter, Lecturer, Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, School of Arts and Sciences
Rebecca Sholes, Senior Faculty Development Specialist, Educational and Scholarly Technology Services, Tufts Technology Services

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