Sunday, 27 April 2014

On MOOCs and Online learning

I think MOOCs are important and useful. I just think that a lot of them aren't following instructional design principles and enabling learners in the way that they should be. It's a great medium to change the world, but it's being run by computer scientists and businessmen with minimal input from learning designers, and this needs to change.

A note of advice, don't take more than one MOOC at a time. The first time I discovered and registered for MOOCs was 2012. I registered for four, but then realised I couldn't follow all the courses. Even after reducing the number to one, I couldn't cope with both the MOOC and my studies. I tried taking more MOOCs when my schedule cleared up in 2013. But again, I registered for too many. I finally completed two courses simultaneously from March to May, but the workload was so high that I decided to stick to one course at a time in future. And the only reason I was able to manage two was because one was really easy.

I learned two lessons here. One, a MOOC is a full time course of study. It's equivalent to one college level module, and a heavy one at that. It requires daily participation on your part, and is certainly not a 'one day a week' thing. You don't just watch a few videos and take a quiz, you need to do a lot more for the course to be effective. There's a lot of reading to do if it's a knowledge based course. And a lot of practice if it's a skill based course.

There's also a lot of knowledge sharing in online groups. And you need to budget your time accordingly. Granted, you don't always know exactly how much time you'll need at the start. Which is why it's a good idea to audit courses when you're not sure. And just drop out if it's too much for you. I tend to do this a lot, especially when the subject area is completely new to me. I've dropped out of around 6 courses for every one I've completed.

The second lesson is about the design aspect of MOOCs. Understanding a concept takes time. Learning comes from reflection, practise, application and knowledge exchange. You do not learn something by watching four 15-minute videos of the topic each week and then taking a quiz about it. The true test of learning comes not from summarising what you've learnt but applying what you've learnt to a new context. That's the real challenge. Do MOOCs meet this?

I say no. Most MOOCs consist of mainly videos and reading materials. Videos are at best an overview, an introduction. They cannot be the entirety of the course material. You should ideally watch a video, and then do a lot of follow up reading (the best MOOCs have their own textbooks), note taking, introspection, sharing ideas with others, summarising your conclusions in the form of essays, and a lot of follow up exercises involving applying your ideas to novel situations. This is how learning takes place.

And this is the problem with MOOCs. They're mostly just videos and quizzes, and they should be more. A course with just videos and quizzes and maybe a few assignments can never completely teach a complex subject to the extent that you begin using its ideas as a practitioner. Secondly, this type of course encourages sole study without group interaction, which is not preferable. Third, it fools you into thinking you're now an expert on a subject because you got a good score on a multiple choice quiz on the subject every week for eight weeks.

Multiple choice quizzes are generally not the best learning facilitation tool, given the amount of guesswork taking place. I understand that you can't have teacher graded essays or exercises in a class of 15,000 students, but peer review should definitely be an option. 

Real learning takes place through reflection and practice, which requires time. One of the better courses I've taken was on Psychology and had it's own free online text book that was required reading for the course, and was comprehensive in the materials it covered. However, I would have liked more essays and exercises to cover the practical aspect. 

Another good one (on mathematics) had loads of exercises that needed to be discussed in the group forums. Group learning is a good thing, and one of the main advantages of online learning. You have so many more classmates to share ideas with and learn from, and you do this on your own time. When a course only revolves around material presented through videos, without any other reference material or exercises, the course forums turn into a wasted opportunity, as you're only discussing topics covered in the videos, which is not extensive anyway.

MOOCs will never replace college education or be taken seriously as a means of education if they don't have their students use more reference material and application based exercises, which encourages reflection and knowledge sharing, and better forms of evaluation.


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