Waste of Time or Valuable Opportunity?: Trying a MOOC

The amount of times I get emails relating to MOOCs these days has gotten a little out of control. MOOCs in higher education, MOOCs and the library, MOOCs and the future of learning. For a while, it was all I was hearing about. At first, I had no idea what a MOOC was and I didn’t care to learn. Slowly, however, I got curious. Now I can say I am a proud completer of a MOOC, and I’m glad that I gave it a chance.

First of all, what is a MOOC? MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course, and is an acronym to describe an online course that is completely free and open to anyone. The most popular MOOCs draw hundreds of thousands of students from all over the world and are often taught by prestigious professors at expensive, high-end universities. To reach thousands of students, MOOC professors approach teaching in new ways–more video content, online non-writing type quizzes (multiple choice, problem sets, etc.), large-scale discussions, and use of social media. While many issues with MOOCs have been discussed at length–such as the effectiveness of a course that has no repercussions for students who barely participate or drop out half-way through, or the capacity of MOOCs to affect the jobs of professors who are paid to teach the same content covered in a MOOC in a classroom environment–there are many who speak of the benefits of MOOCs and the spirit of life-long learning behind them.

After all this controversy and opinion-swapping, how could I possibly resist trying one of these new-fangled MOOC things myself? The MOOC I chose was called Creativity, Innovation, and Change and was taught by three professors at Penn State: Dr. Jack V. Matson, Dr. Kathryn W. Jablokow, and Dr. Darrell Velegol. The course was offered through Coursera, which is currently one of the biggest MOOC platform companies. Over the course of eight weeks, the class attempted to lead students to discover their own creative potential through planning, brainstorming, and collaborating, among other methods.

The course allowed students to choose their level of commitment and, in turn, the amount of formal credit received for taking the course. Students on the Explorer track (like me) watched the weekly lectures (which lasted no longer than 30-40 minutes each week), take 6 of the 8 content quizzes, complete at least one exercise, and reflect on the exercise in a survey. These students, if they met these requirements, could receive a certificate of completion for the course.

For students who wanted more of a challenge, there was also an Adventurer track, which included all of the duties of the Explorer track but added a requirement for a longer-term creative project, which would be assessed through four self-reflection surveys over the course of the 8 weeks. This could earn students a Certificate of Completion with Distinction.

So I enrolled in the course, completed the Explorer track, and passed with flying colors. So what? What did this experience do for me? Was it worthwhile? No one is holding me accountable or cares about my performance in the class. Why did I take the time to do this?

These are questions that all MOOC students must answer. The MOOC learning format is unique because it requires the students to rely almost completely on intrinsic motivation, which can lead to a lack of interest or sense of fulfillment once the class has been completed. If there’s one thing I learned in my MOOC experience its that to really learn things, sometimes someone has to make me do them.

I did participate in all of the required parts of the course, but all the optional parts–recommended reading and videos, class discussion forums, additional projects–I ignored completely. And while I did learn from the class, I am fairly certain I would have learned much more if I had been forced by the prospect of course credit or even an arbitrary grade to participate more completely in the class. This is possibly a reflection on me more than anything, but I do feel that this is an issue that MOOCs will have to address. What can a student really earn from a free course (besides knowledge, of course)? In our generation, practicality and relevance is of up-most importance, so if MOOC creators can’t provide students with concrete motivating rewards for taking courses, they’ll find that they aren’t reaching the students and their efforts (which, from what I understand, are not small) are being wasted.

That said, the MOOC experience I had was a positive one. I may not have learned as much as I could have in a face-to-face, semester-long course, but I did gain some valuable skills and perspectives, all for free. I think this particular MOOC did a good job of recognizing that without that extrinsic motivation, it’s unreasonable to expect students to watch hours of lecture each week or write long essays for class (both things I have experienced in other MOOCs … which I eventually dropped out of). When MOOC creators are careful and reasonable in their planning of the course, they can accomplish much more than instructors who expect too much of their students’ intrinsic motivation and drive students to give up before they’re finished.

Have you had a MOOC experience you’d like to share about? Go ahead and write about it in the comments section below!

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