MOOCs – are they really working?

Over the next month or so I will digress from my normal diversity topic to talk about MOOCs (Massive Open, Online Courses – I am sure you already knew this given the hype about them in the past twelve months). I am about to embark on being a tutor in a MOOC for the first time. This has prompted some reflection on MOOCs.

First a disclaimer, I like the idea of openness but am somewhat sceptical of MOOCs, their hype and their power to change anything important in education. I have participated in a few MOOCs and feel that my participation has been somewhat unsuccessful. I have found it a frustrating experience. So I am hoping my own difficulties will help me be a decent tutor but I need to know why I have found it difficult. I think there are two key reasons:

1) The topic – I have engaged in work-based MOOCs (MOOCs about MOOCs and MOOCS about vaguely interesting work topics) when in hindsight I should have started with topics that I found inherently interesting.

2) The type of MOOC – they have all been cMOOCs (connectivist MOOCs which place the emphasis of learning from each other). I prefer this style of learning in face to face situations but would probably get on better with the more structured xMOOCs.

3) Learning Design problems – this is the one that really bothers me. There is an interesting article written on Inside HIgher Ed that sums up my own frustrations. The description of the MOOC 1.0 is very apt. I really struggle with the idea that it is fine for so many people to not complete. The sense of feeling overwhelmed in a MOOC seems to be a common occurrence. Sue Folley offers some very practical tips of dealing with this and I heartily agree with most of them but I have a serious problem with the idea that “No one can engage with everything”. That strikes me as a serious design flaw of a course. It seems to be the fashion that a MOOC must provide loads of content / activity / discussion and no one is expected to do everything. It is no surprise students get overwhelmed. I wouldn’t do that to my face to face students and I haven’t done that on any of the online courses that I have previously taught. It feels like, as mentioned in the Inside Higher Ed article, we have thrown out much of what we know about learning and learning design in these MOOCs.

My thoughts on this at the moment are, how can be make the massive seem smaller and more intimate? In a large lecture theatre you want to encourage engagement and you can do that by making the environment feel smaller by using group work and other techniques that don’t involve students having to speak in front of 300 of their peers. Can we use those ideas in a MOOC? Would we want to? Is it a way forward?