The problem with MOOCs, you see, is that…

…I don’t like them very much. It was Thursday morning, and the Mozilla Teachtheweb MOOC was about to kick off. I was languishing in a simple decision: should I try out yet another MOOC or give up on them altogether?

This would be my third MOOC, the first two being pretty big failures. In both previous MOOCs (one on Coursera and one on Skillshare) I was part of the 80% that dropped the MOOC in the first few weeks after registering. Why couldn’t these MOOCs keep my attention? It certainly wasn’t the topic or the instructor, as both previous attempts were highly interesting topics taught by great instructors. The format was the problem, I decided.  As the noon kickoff time for Teachtheweb, approached, I listed off the reasons I didn’t like MOOCs:

  • Videos can’t keep my attention. MOOCs have taught me that I really, really don’t like learning through online videos. Videos are just such a passive learning tool, having to wait for someone to progress through topics at their pace rather than my pace is just infuriatingly frustrating to me.
  • It’s hard to use the platforms. Particularly for the Coursera course, it was really difficult for me to figure out where all the resources were, where I connected with classmates, where I did assignments, etc.
  • There was no personalized attention.  It basically took the large lecture format of universities, and amplified it.  The courses were advertised as “learning from XX big shot” when really you were learning with the the 5 other participants you got paired up with, who were usually inactive and just as much noobs as you.
  • It felt like school. This was the big realization for me- a MOOC basically took the classroom structure of a big-lecture university class and attempted to scale it up, as unchanged as possible from that format. Ummm, of all the things we can do on the internet, is the big university lecture really the format we want to replicate?  

Once I hit this last realization, MOOCs suddenly deflated for me from new and revolutionary to old-school and boring.  They fell into the same category as textbook companies that made PDFs of their paper-textbooks in an attempt to “go digital” and embrace e-learning. In the age of interconnectedness and interactivity, are MOOCs and PDFs really the best we can expect from digital learning?

I also reflected on the learning power of internet forums.  This was where MOOCs really fell short to me.  If the information of the MOOC was just put on a forum with experts available to answer questions on the topic, then that would give me everything I needed from the MOOC.  I mean, the Skillshare course I took had a forum, and it was very useful. But I wondered why anything beyond the forum was needed.

The forum offered sortable, searchable information, provided on-demand when I needed it.  Compare this to the office hours in which the instructor of the course fielded question for 30 minutes. First, I was unable to attend the office hours because I was not free at the time it was offered. Second, I had to wade through a variety of questions I was uninterested in, to hear the few I wanted to hear more about.  Third, many of the questions were already asked and answered on the forum in a more detailed form, so it was unclear why I should listen to a one minute explanation in the office hours, when I could read through a more comprehensive explanation in 30 seconds on the forums. Again, the problem was not the quality of the content, but the format it was offered in.

More generally though, I had engaged with the online gaming forums.  These were amazing learning communities, described in length by Kurt Squire.  Basically, everyone was learning together by playing the game and dissecting the strategy of the game with each other. Everyone was learning with each other, as they went along. There was no structured plan or agenda to this learning- and yet the learning was highly effective. There was one feature of this experience that really stuck out and distinguished this from MOOCs- everyone was learning together regardless of skill level, in what I’d like to term an authority-less learning environment.

Ok, let’s go back to Thursday morning. It was an hour until the Teachtheweb kickoff, and here’s where I was at: I really wanted to engage in MOOCs, and I generally found their content interesting, but it was their format that bothered me. The primary problem with the format was that it resembled a large-lecture university setting in which information trickled from an authority to learners. I wanted to learn online, but I wanted something new and original from a MOOC.  The signs said I should forget about Teachtheweb, but against my own judgment I decided to give it a shot.

Wow! What a good choice I made. I quickly realized this was no ordinary MOOC, but was really something different. It completely addressed my four concerns with other MOOCs,:

  • Their model: less yack, more hack.  They did have a video, but they made it clear that this course was not about the instructors lecturing, but about the learners learning. I mean, it was really unclear who the instructors were anyways, the video featured several speakers and the course content was developed by a community of mentors.
  • Use whatever platform you want. Their short kickoff webinar was accompanied by chat on twitter, G+, and their IRC channel. At some point there was a question by someone on where to go to be a part of the course, and I loved Chris Lawrence’s answer. He said that normal MOOCs offered a platform that said where and how learning should take place, but Teachtheweb didn’t like that attitude. For Teachtheweb, learning occurred wherever and whenever you were most comfortable engaging.
  • The course was what you made of it. Since there was no central instructor (but rather a community of mentors), you were encouraged to join groups under such mentors.  Each mentor and community would hack and adjust the general curriculum as they saw fit for their group’s interest. This course was not about what the instructor wanted to teach, but what the learner wanted to learn. We repeatedly heard the phrase, “This course is what you make of it.”
  • Authority-less learning. It was clear from the start that no one was in charge here, and that would be a good, productive thing.

As you might guess, I’ve decided to give the MOOC a shot. I’m still deciding how I want to engage with the material and what I want to make of the course, but I greatly appreciated having that choice.

Maybe there is hope for online learning yet?

4 replies
  1. Kevin Hodgson
    Kevin Hodgson says:

    Nice reflective post. This is my first MOOC of this scale, so I went in a more curious than anything else. I love your first realization: less yack/more hack, and how that fits nicely with the idea of learning by doing and exploring.

  2. Rosemary Powers
    Rosemary Powers says:

    I think if I’d had your experience with those first MOOCs, I would have been even less likely to sign up again. But I had a terrific experience with a connectivist MOOC facilitated by Alec Couros with wonderful assistance by others really committed to learning themselves. It was all about keeping the conversation going and trying new experiences. And we are still continuing it after the course with frequent Google hangouts discussing issues related to blogging, and twitter chats on whatever topics interest us. The course made connections possible all over the world, and the personal learning networks begun there could be around for some time. So this can work….

  3. Agnan Zakariya
    Agnan Zakariya says:

    it’s reflective opinion for future pedagogical … however, the conventional pedagogical (grantor, student, and class) basically being routine behavior. But MOOCs is a Think tank stuff in pedagogical concept. So, back to self again, react that or disguise that.

  4. Kevin Miklasz
    Kevin Miklasz says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone! Glad to hear thoughts from others going through this experience too. Rosemary, I’m really glad you shared your experience, and to hear of successful MOOCs too. I have wondered if there are certain topics that might more readily lend themselves to a “traditional” MOOC format, especially ones about connectivist theory, where the topic is specifically about and encouraging engagement.


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