My First Massive Open Online Class (MOOC)

MOOC. The word rolls off the tongue so easily, belying its complex and controversial nature. For some, MOOCs are a long-awaited digital opportunity to make college accessible and affordable for the masses. To others, it is a threat to all that is the college experience. Regardless of one’s position, MOOCs have arrived and are changing the education conversation and experience. To speak more knowledgeably about the topic, I decided to venture into the world of MOOCs and experience the pros and cons by taking a four-week long Coursera class titled, Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided.”  From Coursera, This MOOC brings together renowned scientists to provide a synthesis of the most recent scientific evidence and presents an analysis of likely impacts and risks, with a focus on developing countries. Perfect topic, perfect length of time. What follows are my impressions.

Starting with the pros, I found the content outstanding. The course was laid out in a comfortably sequential manner starting week one with scientific background on the history and present state of climate change. Week two looked at possible 21st Century climates based on different projections. Week three explored the impacts on life and societies in a 4 Celsius warmer world, and week four was about solutions. Throughout the course, there were outstanding videos, excellent reading passages, and a fairly active discussion board (With nearly 20,000 registrants, it wasn’t hard to find discussion strands to participate in). Since most of the materials came from the World Bank, the readings and videos were well prepared and researched.

Activities were appropriate for the medium. Our first exercise was to evaluate and write a 400 word essay on one of three recent climate change news articles from either The Guardian, New York Times, or a Press Release from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). We were asked to evaluate the author’s knowledge through his or her prior works, credibility of resources used by the author, publication readership and implications for the author, and how thorough the article addressed climate change. For the second activity, we were directed to interview an individual either in our community or fellow Coursera student regarding how we prerceive present and future climate change impacts on us and our community, and what are solutions to the climate change problem. We were to summarize the results into a 400 word essay. Our last task was to create a web-based digital artifact or resource that would summarize the most important things we’ve learned in the course.

My two favorite activities were the interview task and final project. The highlight of the interview project was being interviewed by a gentleman from the Philippines who was a government employee. It was really neat to Skype with this man who lived halfway across the globe. Given the recent horrific events of Typhoon Haiyan that ravaged his country, the issues of climate change were real and palpable. That said, we had a really pleasant interview session and talked about other things besides climate change during our meeting including the cold, snow winter we’re having in Upstate New York. I also appreciated the Final Project because it offered students a variety of options to choose from (We know from Cognitive Psychology the value of choice). I considered making a YouTube video, creating a podcast, developing a Wiggio group, or building a Prezi and sharing it publicly (I’m sure there are more digital options out there, but for this baby boomer, I was tapped out on ideas). I ended up using this blog as my medium for a project on people’s concerns/fears regarding climate change.

There were a number of cons to my MOOC experience. First and foremost, online learning with 20,000 others is an overall lonely experience. It’s mostly just you and the computer. Since the content was familiar to me, I didn’t need to ask questions or ask for elaboration on any particular concepts. However, were this unfamiliar material, I would have struggled and spent many more hours than the 12-20 hours projected to complete the course resolving questions without direct contact with instructors. I also dislike discussion boards. Sorry, but my 55 year old brain prefers to talk face to face with people. A few posts are fine, but I find the time it takes to type something and wait for responses wasteful. I’d much prefer to sit with a group of individuals and hash it out, whatever the topic. So, online course work can be a lonely experience for some.

A second serious concern was the course’s method of evaluation. In this class, our content knowledge was assessed following completion of readings and video viewings. As mentioned earlier, the content was excellent. However, the quizzes were approximately 20 questions long with rigor primarily at the knowledge and comprehension levels. The best part for those struggling with the content was that you got to get a second chance at the quiz! Now, I’m a firm believer in make up tests, but with the use of digital technology, one could easily earn a 100 on every test by simply saving feedback from the first round. That may not matter for a free MOOC, but when you are paying for a class or taking them from an accredited institution, this evaluation format would not be sufficient.

The final problem I experienced was with peer assessments. Besides quiz grades, all projects are peer assessed using rubrics provided by the instructors. I enjoyed doing the assessments and giving feedback to my classmates. Unfortunately, I don’t believe some of my classmates felt as I did regarding peer feedback. In fact, for my article review project, I got a 50% (score of 2 in a 3-point rubric) with no feedback at all. I spent a lot of time on the project, and in my humble opinion, felt it warranted more than a “50” score, and so I complained to my teachers:). Surprisingly, they responded and gave me a higher grade with nice feedback. Grades aside, one needs useful, valid and reliable feedback on their assessments, and to suggest that one or two of 20,000 students could provide such feedback is a stretch. But hey, this was a free class, so I’m okay with it.

Overall, I’d give my MOOC experience a solid B. What does that mean? I guess that depends on your situation. For me, I enjoyed the MOOC–particularly the fact that it was free. Many hours clearly went into organizing the content, projects, and structure. The curriculum was A+, and some of the classmates were stellar. I learned some new things about climate change, and I also got to interact with people I otherwise never would have met. Were I living in a more remote region with MOOCs as my only connection to course content, then I’d reckon this course would earn an overall “A”. MOOCs fill a need, and though they can’t compete with a true college experience, they can be tremendously useful to the self-directed learner.

Well, gotta go now and check whether or not Coursera has set a date for reoffering my next MOOC class, Climate Literacy: Navigating Climate Change Conversations!


2 responses to “My First Massive Open Online Class (MOOC)

  1. Steve,
    What an interesting experience! I hope that Literacy Foundations is not offered as a MOOC; although a course on general literacy knowledge would be useful for the US population overall.
    I think your experience will encourage others to give this form of learning a try.

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