MOOC is not a dirty word… at least for the student

Photo of a mortar board hat and scrollThere seems to be a lot of animosity toward MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) at the moment, mostly it seems because they don’t offer the same experience as a traditional on-campus course and because of the issues around assessment.

But I wonder how many of those nay-sayers have actually taken a MOOC? From a student point of view, a MOOC is a wonderful opportunity to try something for free, with no obligation if it doesn’t work out, or if circumstances force a change of mind.

So I’ve taken off my e-learning hat and I’m writing this from a student point of view. I’m currently doing Stanford University’s HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) course. As I live in a rural area and work full-time, there is no other way that I would be able to access such a course. I’m not doing it for the “statement of accomplishment”, which if I complete the course, I’ll get at the end (although that carrot does help). I’m doing it for my own personal development, skills upgrading and enjoyment. In any case, I wouldn’t be able to take such a course in my own time at my own institution.

As I said in my previous post, MOOCs and Carrots back in September, the types of students on these courses are not students who would normally be able to study in a campus setting. People seem to be taking such courses to upgrade or complement their existing skills or even just for the challenge. There are mothers with young children, housebound people, people with disabilities, people who don’t live anywhere near an educational institution, unemployed people, etc. Not only that, people can take each week’s module whenever they want, wherever they want. Be it at 9pm at night when the children have gone to bed or on the train on the way to a meeting. These are non-traditional students who would be unable to attend a class in a traditional setting.

The HCI course is peer-reviewed, which I think is a sticking point for many educationalists. This is not without its challenges from both a student and educationalist perspective as some of the forum posts testify. However, as a student, it enables me to see other students’ work and how they have approached a particular task. The learning comes not just from following the video lectures and attempting each week’s practical assignment, it comes from what my peers say about my work as well as from what I can observe in theirs.

One student asked if the online HCI course was any different to the one that Stanford’s own on-campus students take. Both online and on-campus students have the video lectures (although some are done physically by the on-campus staff), the on-campus students have 10 weeks to complete the course (online students have 9), on-campus students also have an hour’s lab time per week (presumably with some sort of assistance from staff), and of course on-campus students’ work is assessed by teaching staff. In both cases, the content is the same.

Some students do want that (electronic) piece of paper at the end, perhaps for the prestige of successfully completing a Stanford course (the type of statement of accomplishment depends on the student’s average marks for the course) or for demonstrating to their employers that they have completed it. Many other students are completing the course at their own pace (it is quite intensive) and are doing it because they want to learn about HCI in their own time and their own way. For them, a MOOC is a way to facilitate that – they get the guidance and support they need but there is no fear of failing or dropping out, as the course can always be taken again next time or over an extended period of time. For many students, the learning goal is not a piece of paper, but the acquisition of a new skill or undertaking a personal challenge.

Institutions and educationalists should not look at the MOOC as a threat to the sector (at least not yet), because the type of people taking these online classes are generally not able (for whatever reason) to take a traditional on-campus course. It may be some time before the assessment side of things is robust enough to enable students to receive proper accreditation.

MOOCs do fill a need, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many thousands of people flocking to take them (the other course I’m taking has over 34,000 students registered). So before, we look at MOOCs in a negative light, let’s look at it from the student point of view. After all, as educationalists, isn’t that who we’re here to serve?

7 thoughts on “MOOC is not a dirty word… at least for the student

  1. Pingback: MOOC is not a dirty word… at least for the student | Sharon Perry « Things I grab, motley collection

  2. Hi Sharon

    I’ve been dabbling in MOOCs too, and share many of your feelings. I think most of the backlash is around the “this is revolutionising educational practice” and “this will destroy universities” type hype. The big MOOCs use pretty mainstream pedagogy developed through distance education for many years, so in that sense they aren’t revolutionary. However the free aspect (at the moment) is and like you I’ve enjoyed looking at things with risk/cost.


  3. Hi Sharon,

    Alan Cann and I were chatting about your post on Google+. I thought I’d share here:

    Alan Cann 11:07
    Clay Shirky has said it all (as is his way). MOOCs are cheaper but not better, see:
    In a free economy, Gresham’s Law applies and bad money drives out good.?

    Martin Hawksey 12:14
    +Doug Clow has a nice post reflecting on Clay piece. Particularly liked “we knew MP3s were acoustically dodgy compared to full CDs. But they were easier to get hold of, and that made all the difference”

    Alan Cann 11:37
    VHS and Betamax again already. Gresham’s Law.?

    Martin Hawksey 11:49
    And of course betamax/betacam had a long life after VHS won the home market because of the production quality was higher.

    I don’t think many institutions will be using the slogan ‘Poppleton University, the betamax of higher education’ ;)?

    Interested to hear your thoughts


  4. Hi Martin

    My post was written from a student’s point of view. Whilst there is a lot of discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of MOOCs from an educationalist’s point of view, we don’t often hear what the student thinks.

    My conclusions remain the same:
    1. There is a need for free, short, no obligation courses that the student can take anytime, anywhere – even at their own pace
    2. Not all students want an accredited piece of paper at the end. For many (myself included), it’s about learning something new or taking up a new challenge
    3. MOOCs, at present, are probably of greatest value to the non-traditional, non-campus based student who may be time or resource poor
    4. Can 34,000 students for a single course all be wrong?

    Whilst I agree that MOOCs may not be for everyone and that some of the wrinkles still need to be ironed out, they offer a learning experience to which people are flocking – and based on feedback from the student forums – and finding enjoyable and useful.

    Those universities that have the highest standing, e.g. Ivy League, Oxbridge etc, are likely to attract the most students. It may be that quality of MOOCs run by such institutions is assured because of the reputation that they already have.

    I’m sure the debate will rumble on, but let’s not forget the student in all this.


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