Connection not Content

A Blog for MOOCs and Other Animals

Milking the MOOC

with 6 comments

MOOCs have been around for some time now but exactly what they are for is still not too clear. It’s not that there can be no accounting for what’s learned in a MOOC, it’s just that getting a handle on it all is far more difficult in comparison with the traditional one-dimensional course where knowledge is squeezed into a single linear syllabus and regularly served up in digestible chunks by an instructor who ‘knows best’. Real learning never worked like that anyway. Lectures and assignments got missed and catching up became a social enterprise dependent on the goodwill of others or the ability to identify and flush out relevant stuff in a library. In any case, real learning is about understanding and that comes in fits and starts, with or without help from others and sometimes never, even when formal exams are passed – who hasn’t boasted of passing an exam on some boring topic without understanding the first thing about it?

Enter the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed MOOC and much of the informal and chaotic aspects of real learning move into the animal itself bringing enormous benefits to digitally literate and autonomous learners. Learner autonomy was exploited with much success in the early cMOOCs but admittedly a large proportion of participants were well-educated themselves with the capacity and motivation to get the most out of new learning strategies. Unfortunately, the formal education systems of the world do not produce an abundance of autonomous learners who can be relied upon to make the most of MOOCs and the learning experience of many participants is sadly limited, particularly when they’re dunked in at the deep end. Just look at the massive clunky forums beloved of xMOOCs where numerous participants without the necessary survival skills are deterred from posting much, or anything at all. I’ve written about this elsewhere (‘Learning to Learn‘) but isn’t there a significant gap to be bridged between traditional teaching and the newer forms of learning before many people can properly benefit from MOOCs?


You can milk a MOOC for anything you like!
(Image by Tom Arthur on Flickr)

I’ve now registered for the Stanford University ‘Quantum Mechanics for Scientists and Engineers‘ MOOC. I’ve been trying to understand QM off and on for several years without much success so I’m hoping to milk this particular MOOC for a more detailed understanding rather than just general information. In contrast, I was a complete novice in my last MOOC on philosophy with Edinburgh University but I did pick up some of the basics. No doubt some people will want to join the QM MOOC for that sort of reason too.

Inevitably, the massive number of learners attracted by free and open MOOCs have a very wide range of learning objectives and if the aspirations of the greatest numbers of participants are to be satisfied then MOOCS ought to be specifically designed for diversity of purpose (eg see ‘The First Adaptive MOOC‘). This is certainly not the case for many xMOOCs where the sole purpose seems to be to ‘pass the course’ on the basis of rather dubious methods of assessment. The overwhelming majority of participants who, for any reason, do not pass or have no interest in passing are overlooked although many will gain at least some educational benefit. Of course, the more a learner is able to participate in a MOOC the better but there’s nothing wrong with part-participation as Jim Stauffer succinctly points out in, ‘Open letter to an online learner mistakenly self-identifying as a “dropout” ‘. There’s nothing even wrong with no participation or simply downloading stuff for later perusal. With massive numbers and running costs per user near zero why should the MOOC care? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with milking a MOOC for anything you like.

In contrast with traditional face-to-face courses a properly designed, multifaceted MOOC should cater very well indeed for the parallel paths and nonlinear progress of real learning. Isn’t that what MOOCs should really be for?

Written by Gordon Lockhart

September 20, 2013 at 10:26 am

Posted in Mooc

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6 Responses

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  1. I really meant to get back to this sooner after reading to comment but kept getting distracted, almost forgetting but not quite.

    Learning to Learn link took me to Access Denied…but I appreciate irony almost as much Open Ed. Plus, I added the page to resources for a project I’d been thinking about and finally started: a rather mixed bag learning feature/category spread over my community blog, pages and social media and united by tags.

    How is (are?) Quantum Mechanics? I thought history would suit but it turned out not. My unconscious took charge and just sent them down a memory hole. Mooc’d out I think, although I’ve followed and enjoyed a couple of oddly compelling, experimental ones inhabited by K-12 teachers doing PD. Too bad they probably don’t get to use the most engaging parts. I added them to my project – no reaction from K-12 teachers but the homeschooling parents really like them.

    Did you see the accounts about the “homeless by choice” volunteer educator and sole proprietor of the World Mentoring Academy ~ spends his days in Starbucks using the free WiFi there to compile information about MOOCs?


    October 17, 2013 at 5:25 am

    • Thanks Vanessa – I’ve sorted the ‘Learning to Learn’ link now (I’d actually changed it on iBerry to avoid spambots and forgot the old URL was here!)

      The QM MOOC has kept me busy, (too busy to blog about it so far) and so far I’m keeping up. Some of the the usual drawbacks apply (clunky forum, stuff not appearing when it should, ambiguities or worse in MCQ wording but on the whole I’m impressed with the academic team. There’s only one ‘sage on stage’ but he’s very active in the forums – unusual for xMOOCs but it makes a great difference as otherwise the burden falls on ‘expert’ participants who can be somewhat lacking in teaching skills. I suspect this MOOC is less than massive which helps the student/staff ratio of course

      Yes I saw the “homeless by choice” accounts. I’m actually trying to grade ‘learner support’ websites (for iBerry) under various headings (eg Openness, Community, Content, Useability, Popularity) but have only had a quick look at that site. It’s well-designed and now becoming popular but there seem to be quite a few others like it. I suspect that some potential online learners are put off by having to click around incessantly finding out which site is good for what.


      October 17, 2013 at 4:24 pm

      • Yes, I rather imagine there are. I have bits and pieces myself but mostly share them out on blogs, online groups and local communitypages. If I waited until organized, it would never happen, but I do use the same tag on blogs and Facebook. Uncollected but potentially collectible.

        Rating is a good idea. I’d add target audience/learner level (sub-categories of useability) to it. Purpose too: GED, workplace skills, college prep. Not having to take developmental or non-credit catch up classes in college or retake core courses keeps college costs down.

        Size and instructor involvement make all the difference. I’m wondering about the number difference between manageable and unmanageable ~ the break-over range for different subjects. Surely someone somewhere is following that.

        #xplrpln (Exploring PLNs) and #wweopen13 (World Wide Ed – Canadian – Open Learning) both cover familiar ground but different structures. Both modest sized, educators who, presumably, already know how to learn. Another major factor.



        October 21, 2013 at 1:38 am

  2. Yes, a really good job would include audience/learner level etc but for the purposes of the exercise I’m focusing mainly on HE (If I tried to cover K12 for example I’d never get my garden weeded! I’ve also excluded worthy but numerous sites dealing in DIY snippets like ‘Making Gravy for Beginners’.) The idea is to update stuff I did before for ‘learner support’ sites here, but progress is slow 😦

    Agreed on size and instructor involvement – I thought the involvement on the philosophy MOOC was very good but it’s even better for QM where the Prof giving the videos frequently answers forum questions – and far better than ‘expert’ participants. I really can’t see MOOC learners teaching themselves QM very effectively without decent pre-planned ‘instruction’ – this sort of subject seems quite different from one like philosophy where, arguably, much discussion among participants and availability of good facilitators can be reasonably effective.


    October 21, 2013 at 11:44 pm

  3. […] ‘toe-dippers’ and ‘drop-outs’ who, for a miscellany of reasons ‘milk the MOOC‘ but do not qualify for a […]

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