A Tale of Two MOOCs 「慕課」的故事

Text by: Chris

Professional development is something that we love to talk about at HKLC, and MOOCs have been increasingly cropping up in these conversations. One of our recent suggestions for participants in the Mentoring Program was to check out online courses together. The topic of MOOCs has also come up at the university where I work, so it felt like the right time for me to check them out myself.

At the same time, I was wary about jumping on the MOOC bandwagon. While there has been a great deal of excitement around MOOCs, in recent years there has been a seemingly equal amount of criticism. Citing low completion rates and the impersonal nature of courses with thousands of students, some are now even advising us to "forget MOOCs".

With the debate ongoing, I figured that the best way to have an informed opinion was to try them out for myself. So over the past few months I have completed two courses - below are my reflections on the experience.



FutureLearn employs a clean and minimalist design aesthetic

FutureLearn employs a clean and minimalist design aesthetic

MOOC 1 - Introduction to Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (FutureLearn)

Established by the Open University and offering courses since 2013, FutureLearn is perhaps one of the lesser-known MOOC platforms. I became aware of it through work, and decided to take a course on learning and teaching in higher education offered by UNSW, partly because I was familiar with one of the professors.

A major focus of FutureLearn courses is on discussions. My fellow students and I were given stimulus materials - videos and articles mostly - and then given some discussion points. We then took to the forums built into the platform to discuss. This worked quite well, and I did get responses to my posts from users all over the world.

While there were a few simple multiple choice quizzes, the exercises were mostly built around compiling an ePortfolio. I followed the instructions closely (you can find my ePortfolio here), and the course culminated in a couple of other students giving me some peer feedback. I thought that was pretty neat, but I would have loved to have gotten some feedback from a teacher too. This is illustrative of one of the criticisms of MOOCs - students generally don't get personalized feedback from educators.





Screen grab from the first lecture - Full subtitles and transcripts are provided

Screen grab from the first lecture - Full subtitles and transcripts are provided

MOOC 2 - Introduction to Data Analysis using Excel (edX)

edX is one of the bigger players in the MOOC space, and was founded by Harvard University and MIT in 2012. There are a lot of courses to choose from, but in the end I chose this course from Microsoft because I have always felt my Excel skills are below par.

The structure of this course was rather different from that in the FutureLearn course. Instead of videos and articles, the course content was delivered by one lecturer (who was very good!) with links to additional readings. Each lecture is followed by a knowledge check (multiple choice questions about the lecture content) followed by a lab exercise. This involves the student downloading an Excel file of example data and working through the instructions provided to arrive at an answer.

I have to say that I found this to be a more compelling experience compared to the FutureLearn course. The questions count towards a course grade, which made the experience more challenging (in FutureLearn you simply need to mark the various modules as complete in order to progress). I was inspired to work hard to figure out the correct answer, and it was a great feeling to crack a tough problem.

After completing both courses, I also think that the subject matter of the edX course lent itself better to the online learning experience. Rather than the complex questions about the nature of teaching and learning in higher education that characterized the FutureLearn course, learning to use a piece of software was a much more concrete experience that was better suited to the type of automated assessments that are typically used in MOOCs.






Am I addicted to MOOCs?

Initially I was worried that I would end up not completing the first course. But I found myself strangely compelled to complete the course modules, to the extent that I was often ahead of schedule! On edX in particular, seeing the progress bars fill up as I completed exercises and lab questions was highly addictive.

Admittedly, another big part of my motivation for completing the courses was the fact that I had paid up front for certificates. You only get these if you complete the course, so if you don't finish them you will have wasted your money. To be clear though, you can take these courses completely for free.

The certificates themselves are pretty cool. Very much like the Credly badges that HKLC has done for mentoring, you receive an online certificate that you can add to online profiles like LinkedIn. Here are my certificates for both the FutureLearn and EdX courses. FutureLearn also sent me a handsome printed certificate as well (though I am not sure where to put it!).

I seem to have well and truly caught the MOOC fever. As elaborated on above, I had a better experience with the Microsoft EdX course, and am planning to take another course in the same series.

Have you had a MOOC experience, perhaps on one of the other big platforms out there? Questions about MOOCs and how they work? Feel free to leave a comment below!