The fervent reporting surrounding MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses: see here for more details care of our friends at Wikipedia) finally seems to have died down a little: this time last year there were so many articles and opinions vaunting MOOCs as ‘the next big thing in education’ or ‘the worst thing to happen in education since Michael Gove’ that it was impossible to form an opinion. In theory I liked the idea, but in practice saw that a lot of MOOCs were suffering massive drop out rates. I guess I needed to be a part of one to make a proper judgement.
A few months ago I was asked whether I’d like to volunteer to beta test a MOOC hosted by FutureLearn as part of my role (Cardiff University are a FutureLearn partner, and will be developing their own course for the site – something I think I’d like to get involved with, but something that may well warrant a separate post). As a result, I have enrolled on a course developed by the University of Leicester that looks at England in the Time of King Richard III. I love a bit of history – it was one of my favourite subjects at school, and as a teenager I had a secret wish to be a museum curator (or a helicopter pilot. Poor eyesight and even worse mathematical ability put paid to that). I also wanted to study something for me; something that wasn’t classified as professional development. We learn more when we select the subject we are studying rather than having it selected for us, so this would give me more of a chance of completing the course.
So, one week in and here’s what I think of it so far.
The course is constructed of six, week-long, themed sessions built around a range of bite-sized activities that employ a range of media. Yes, there are articles to read (my main fear was that this would be yet another example of lecturers uploading reams of text and hellaciously long PowerPoint presentations and passing it off as online learning– so far, this has not happened), but each article is beautifully short. Importantly, the layout makes great use of white space and clear font styles, so each article is physically easy to read (the content is coherent and cohesive too). Other learning objects comprise audio and video clips which, again, are only a few minutes in length. These solo activities are interspersed with discussions – a broad question is posed and users are encouraged to add their thoughts and comment of others’ responses, thereby consolidating the information presented to date. This interaction with an online community is a great way to make learners feel less disparate and encourages motivation. As one learner says in the forum: ‘I like the pace of the course and the crowd-directed learning!’ However, it seems to me that the vast majority of learners all seem to be incredibly well qualified– a few learners have introduced themselves on the forum as holding not one but TWO PhDs in medieval history. This is a little bit intimidating to someone with a GCSE in history, who now feels like Cletus the slack-jawed yokel.
Logical structure made clear with an overview of each week’s topic, followed by the main body of content and wrapped up with a consolidatory, multiple choice quiz.
As a self-professed anal retentive, there are some features here that really appeal to me: once complete, an activity can be signed off at the click of a button (but can also be unlocked again should the learner want to revisit it later on). By going into my profile, I can see a list of forum posts I have contributed and a clear breakdown of what I have completed and what I need to do in order to finish a week’s session. The layout is visually very satisfying – and it’s not just the good use of white space that I mentioned earlier. Whether learners with dyslexia or scotopic sensitivity would agree is another matter. For such learners, black text on a white background can reputedly be a little harsh to the eye, and so far I haven’t seen an option to change accessibility settings. However, there is a ‘feedback’ tag on each page that allows users to send in suggestions as to how to improve the site, so this may come in the future. Having said that the site’s beautifully clean and minimalist look and its simplicity of use is something that I rate very highly – to listen and act upon too many suggestions by users may result in an overly complex and cluttered design and confusing user experience. Sometimes, less really is more.
So, as I enter week two I realise that I am really looking forward to putting aside a few minutes every day to wander through this week’s topic. (FutureLearn suggest spending 2 hours per week on each week’s session), and I’m already thinking about signing up for another MOOC after I complete this one. Having said that, in a week or two when I write part two of this article, things may have changed and I may have lost interest, thereby becoming one of the 60-90% of students who drop out. I’m flighty like that.