Adventures in MOOCs, Part 1: The Final Frontier?

Before I began my internship with Teachers With Apps, I would have thought a MOOC was the name of an alien creature straight out of Star Wars. I had no background in education, much less education technology and all the vocabulary and acronyms that come with it.
Not a MOOC! Photo: LucasFilm

This is not a MOOC!

I first read about Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, on the Teachers With Apps blog, in particular, the excellent infographic Adventures in Online Learning. In brief, MOOCs are the latest innovation in a long tradition of distance learning programs. The first distance learning programs were college courses through mail correspondence. Radio courses came along in 1921, and televised courses in 1953. Computer instruction developed in the following decades, though only as a supplement to classroom instruction. The University of Manitoba in Canada opened the first MOOC in 2008. MOOCs have an average of 50,000 students, though they are far from a one-size-fits-all option. Medical students, for example, cannot earn an entire degree online without hands-on experience. untitled Furthermore, the marketing research firm Eduventures reported on its infographic: "Students feel that certain subjects, such as languages, public speaking, and counseling, are particularly unsuited to the online setting." Nevertheless, MOOCs have enormous potential in the education arena. Professors from Stanford University, Harvard University, and MIT have all invested millions in startups for MOOCs. President Obama even pledged over $500 million to create online educational material. The numbers for 2013 continue to show exponential growth in online education: "An estimated 1 out of 4 college students are enrolled in at least one online class. Currently, 83% of all U.S. institutions that offer online courses say they expect an increase in online enrollment in the coming decade."

Photo: The Open University website

To a liberal arts college graduate considering a second degree, the thought of classes I can take at home sounded convenient and cheap. I already have a friend who earned her high school diploma online, and I often see online ads to earn a degree online, but never took the plunge. I was not familiar with the Open University, or OU before I signed up for a course on its FutureLearn website. OU is an English online school that aims to make higher education accessible to all. From the beginning, the OU embraced every medium that could facilitate distance learning with the same gusto as it eventually embraced the internet. Its faculty touts its success in delivering quality education to the masses: "Charismatic figures like Arthur Marwick, Professor of History, and Mike Pentz, the first Dean of Science, roared defiance at more conventional peers elsewhere, as the OU proved triumphantly that it is possible to teach university-level courses to unqualified students, at a distance. Science home experiment kits, late night TV broadcasts and residential schools became part of the OU folklore." untitledLast year OU announced the opening of FutureLearn, a private company that would bring courses from some of the top universities in the world together in one place. The course I signed up for, England in the Time of Richard III, is from the Britain's University of Leicester. As the FutureLearn website states, "Our aim is to connect learners from all over the globe with high-quality educators, and with each other. We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, with plenty of opportunities to discuss what you’ve studied, in order to make fresh discoveries and form new ideas." Although I have never read Shakespeare's play about the last Lancastrian king, my English major heart started to go pitter-patter when I saw the course. Earlier this year, archaeologists from the University of Leicester discovered the remains of Richard III in a car park near Bosworth Field, the battlefield where he died. In the wake of renewed interest in Richard, the last king of England to die in battle, the university started the course on FutureLearn.
Why so serious? Photo: University of Leiceister

Why so serious?

On the FutureLearn website, I found a social network set-up where I had to create a profile. The profile is Spartan at best and includes a picture, a list of the student's courses, and an activity log. There is also a counter for how many users you follow, and how many follow you back. The course itself is a series of videos, articles, and interviews with experts with at least two sections each week for students to discuss what we had learned. Each week's material takes about two hours to go through, with a short quiz at the end of the week. The first week of the course was about the Wars of the Roses, a fifteenth-century struggle between the House of York and the House of Lancaster to determine which dynasty would rule England. Richard was the last Yorkist to be king but lost his crown and his life at the Battle of Bosworth Field to Henry Tudor, a Lancastrian.
Two weeks before the course began, instructor Deirdre O'Sullivan e-mailed the members of the course with a brief introduction to the course. She included a hashtag for members to use to interact before, during, and after the course. untitled Although I have not used the hashtag yet, I expect to come against the same obstacle as in the two discussions in the first week of the course. Namely, there are 10,000 other class members commenting on discussions, sometimes simultaneously. There are not enough hours in the day to read through the sheer volume of comments, some of which are redundant. Instead, I decided to skim a few of the most recent comments, then post my own. I've also replied to a few other comments. My other complaint was that I had no way to tell if people saw my replies, or if they replied back. Facebook and Twitter have spoiled me for notifications each time someone tags or mentions me. However, I and other FutureLearners will have to wait until next fall for such a feature on FutureLearn. After a course member notified the webmasters through the feedback tab to the left of the screen, the reply was: "As an update on this feedback, notifications on followers and replies is something we have put into the development schedule for the autumn."
Why did everyone in the 15th century look like a cartoon character? Photo: University of Leicester

Why did everyone in the 15th century look like a cartoon character?

The website is in beta and relies on feedback from students to refine its features. Right from the off, there were discrepancies in the course material that none but the history buffs in the class could catch. The course takes two hours a week to complete and requires no supplementary text, hardly equivalent to the lectures and papers and test college degrees require. FutureLearn has a long way to go before it can provide courses at the same caliber as traditional colleges. So are MOOCs like the Richard III course the final frontier in higher education? Tune in next week for my further adventures, and may the MOOCs be with you.
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  1. […] Before I began my internship with Teachers With Apps, I would have thought a MOOC was the name of an alien creature straight out of Star Wars.  […]