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MOOCs aren’t at all bad … or is that damning with faint praise? June 3, 2012

Posted by IaninSheffield in CPD, Resources.
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computer science

cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo by derrickting: http://flickr.com/photos/derrickding/323213337/

The six weeks are up and I’ve successfully reached the end of CS101 on Coursera, my first MOOC. Although I’m not entirely sure how many students were enrolled on the course, there was clearly a good international spread, with the age spectrum well represented too. (If their submissions were to be believed, the youngest was 11 and the oldest 82)

Before I reflect on how things worked out, it might be wise to return to my motivations for embarking on this course of study. I was hoping to explore:

  • an example of the new learning environments known as MOOCs
  • my attitude to learning through this medium
  • introductory computer science.

I guess on all three fronts I succeeded, however that’s not to say the experience was entirely fulfilling. I certainly had a good look around the Coursera environment which offered a clear, well-structured, robust platform with course materials laid out and accessible intuitively ( at least for someone who is familiar with online learning environments). Providing the learning materials as short (10-20min) videos in lecture-style format, supported by course notes was perfectly acceptable, especially as the videos could be downloaded for offline viewing. I often find streaming an unsatisfying experience due to inevitable buffering, but here I could download the videos and watch them from the comfort of the sofa on the larger screen of my TV … and with a cuppa close to hand. The ‘test area’ coding environment for those parts of the course was a sensible move, but I didn’t find the need to use it much (more later).The assessment exercises were largely trivial, given the need to have them auto-marked; it wouldn’t have been difficult to include a few more multi-choice questions with an increasing level of demand perhaps. But then again, the assessments aren’t really there to differentiate one learner from another, nor to provide some element of summative grade; they’re just a mechanism by which the learner can check his/her understanding … though perhaps they didn’t really do that too well either.

To address the potentially missing social, interactive aspects of studying online, a forum environment was provided and whilst some participants were clearly enthusiastic contributors, I found the majority of threads either a little too trivial or far too long and wandering. Perhaps this was simply because the course contents didn’t offer sufficient demand that I had issues I needed to resolve through discussion with others or maybe in just a six week course I just didn’t feel the imperative to fully commit and begin to forge relationships.

I suspect that choosing computer science was my main mistake, though for the best intentions. With the current debate surrounding its reinvigoration in the UK school curriculum, it seemed like an appropriate topic to visit. Unfortunately an introductory course aimed at people with no prior experience of CS inevitably meant that there was insufficient challenge for me. Which is not to say I came away having learned nothing; quite the contrary in fact. The problem was more that I never needed to step away from the content to process it further or more deeply, either because it didn’t challenge me or I felt no imperative to push myself to take things further. To be fair I couldn’t really expect any more than that from a six week introductory course. The consequence however was that I never became fully immersed in the course, whether due to my attitude to the subject matter, course contents or the open nature (i.e. no commitment either personally or financially).

In the end I suspect my feelings were far less skeptical than Joshua Kim’s and at a similar (though not for the same reasons) level to those of Audrey Waters. Would I do another? Absolutely! In fact in order to evaluate MOOCs more rigorously, I need to do another; one in which I move beyond my comfort zone and into an area that fully challenges me. Are MOOCs suitable for everyone? Of course not! But that’s not because the technological environment might not suit all (which is indeed true), but that you have to have a determined and committed approach to your learning, recognising that the locus of that learning must come from within. Would I recommend it to someone else! Probably. There’s certainly nothing inherently weak in the principle or the practise, but I would advise them that progress and success will depend largely on their predisposition. Let’s keep a sense of perspective – these are free (arguably!), well-structured, well-resourced courses which provide learning opportunities for anyone with an Internet connection. They have to be worth a shot surely?

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