My Journey into MOOCs


I have recently taken a few online courses or MOOCs (Massive Open Online courses).  Therefore, I have been viewing the recent discussion around these courses with a great deal of interest.  I believe, that since I have actually taken a few of these courses, I have a unique perspective to offer this discussion.



MOOCS are delivered by sites such as Coursera, and its counterpart in the UK https://www.futurelearn.com/about.   These courses have; a set syllabus, set assignments, an opportunity to connect with other students and a chance to gain a certificate of achievement. (Or even gain a credit for a more traditional course.) you can find their mission statement at (https://www.coursera.org/about)I will now share my experiences of these following courses;   Crafting an Effective Writer, and Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (ModPoe).  


Crafting an Effective Writer


When you’re at university you write all the time but when you leave that institution; you stop writing, find that  your writing muscle gets flabby and you begin to lose your confidence in your writing ability. Therefore,  my first Coursera course was a writing course. This course got me writing again.  It encouraged me to write increasingly larger chunks of work. In doing so, my confidence gradually returned  At the same time, it gave the student constructive advice on correct grammar.  In a series of videos, the student was taken through the building blocks of English grammar.


This course was useful but it also highlighted one of the main flaws of these courses.  Unlike more traditional courses, assignments are marked, not by professional tutors, by fellow students.  This course was taken by a variety of students with varying degrees of abilities.  For many students, English was their second or third language. Therefore, the standard of marking varied with the ability of the student.   In addition, the feedback on assignments could be harsh.   Bullying is stamped on.  But, given the way the internet functions, this could become an ideal platform for internet trolls. So, while I value this course.  I also can envisage problems, if this should become the main delivery channel for education.


Modern and contemporary American Poetry.


I love/write poetry and, therefore, this was the perfect course for me.  Modpoe is delivered by Penn; The University Of Pennsylvania (http://www.upenn.edu/) and The Kelly Writers’ House (http://www.writing.upenn.edu/wh/).  The Writers House has a history of community engagement and run both; a radio station  (http://writing.upenn.edu/wh/multimedia) and magazine.  It, therefore, comes as no surprise that this organisation should be one of the early pioneers of the MOOC, producing an early version in 2004. The course comprises several video discussions, between a lecturer and a group of students, in which they explore the weeks set poems. This is backed up by a weekly  live broadcast where students can send in questions.


Due to its longevity,  this course has built a very strong community around itself. Some students retake this course whenever it becomes available. The course has very active discussion boards.  These discussion boards are moderated by; community TAS, the staff of the course; and, yes even the senior lecturer appears on the forums. These boards are augmented by a clever use of social media; both a Facebook page and Twitter feed.  These help create a strong community and allow this community to continue when the course is on hiatus. This community is a global one  and its students come from a variety of backgrounds.  That is one of the things which makes this course so vibrant. It is the community that makes this course so appealing to me and it is the thing that will make me take this course again.   


However, the global community attracted to this course is not reflected in its syllabus.  As the name of the course implies, it deals with American poetry.  It could be argued tells an American story. It, therefore prioritises that story, excluding the stories of other cultures.


General points and  summary.


It would be easy to claim that these courses open up a high standard of education to all, regardless of; Geographic location, ability or social class.


But, the internet is not accessible to all. Many individuals, even those living in the 'developed' world, do not have a stable access to the internet. Many more do not have access to the internet. Many do not know how to use the computer/the internet. Many disabled people find the web difficult to access.


The geographic spread of the students is not matched by the geographic spread of the course providers. These tend to be located in the USA or Europe. This could be seen, and has been seen, as the developed world imposing their view of the world on 'developing' countries. It would be revolutionary if universities from developing societies could be encouraged, and enabled, to take part in this global revolution.

The lack of, or relative lack of, tutor support could mean that students may not have the support that they require. This may explain their relatively high drop out rate.  In addition, the absence of professional marking may lower standards.


My main fear is that these courses start to take over from the more traditional forms of higher education. I fear that governments, wishing to circumvent their responsibility to provide higher education to all its citizens, may see this as a free alternative.  In addition,  I fear that universities, see this as an easy way to tick those 'access to all boxes' and not work as hard to increase physical access to their higher quality courses. I also fear that students, daunted by high fees, might choose these courses over their more traditional counterparts.  I share the fear of many commentators that these courses may create a two tier system in which; rich students receive a high quality education in a traditional setting, while the disadvantaged student is forced to rely on MOOCS with all their flaws. If these courses are seen as a way to supplement traditional teaching methods, then it will be a true revolution. If it is seen as a substitute it could destroy the advances made, in previous years, to expand high quality education to all.