Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Learning with MOOCs: what is it like?

A few months ago, while still waging my personal war for general knowledge, I stumbled upon the MOOCs. I had been following video courses on YouTube and lurking over other potential e-learning options when I discovered them - and it was love at first sight.
Friends on quest for knowledge, don't go any further: the greatest universities worldwide are opening their doors for us to trample through. They're the new cool kid on the educational Web and it seems like everyone's babbling about them... So I thought I would add my two pence and tell you what it's like from the inside, to learn with a MOOC.

If you haven't met them yet, MOOCs are Massive Open Online Courses, proposed by universities from everywhere (but mostly American). More than simple online videos, they want to get closer to a "campus" atmosphere, with a beginning and an end date, homework deadlines and a strong will to be as interactive as possible.

To get in, it's really quite simple: you just need an e-mail to subscribe to the course and access the lectures.
On a fixed day, the videos of the week's lecture - cut into little sessions of 10 or 15 minutes - are put online (and in HTML5, no less). Some little and fairly easy intra-video quizzes are there to check that you have understood the important concepts.
Some courses also require some reading, sometimes optional, sometimes compulsory (of course, if you're taking a literature course, you can expect to have to read a few books!). But often, the access to resources is made easy. For example, this leadership course enables students to access scientific articles which aren't in Open Access, either directly on the publisher's website, or through downloadable PDFs (and suspiciously, the teacher is often among the authors...).

Students can exchange notes and advice on the forums (but when you know that, at the beginning of a course, the number of subscribed students can reach 50 or 60 000... it's sometimes a bit hard to be heard!).
Apparently, teachers, their assistants, and Coursera's technical staff follow more or less what is said. Some teachers step in directly on the forum. Other multiply e-mail announcements to answer the most popular comments and questions. This psychology teacher seems very invested in this project and often creates new videos to address the debates roaring among students.

We also have some good old-fashioned exams, either in the form of quizzes or essays (or something less traditional as in the Songwriting course I took, where lyrics or music excerpts were asked each week).
Grading methods vary from course to course. For example, this management course values participation and asks to write a minimum of 20 posts on the courses' forum (with the excess you can expect: myriads of uninteresting subjects and the same themes repeated over and over, especially in the first weeks). Some essays only require a minimum of 100 words to obtain automatically the maximum grade. Other go through peer review: each week, the student evaluates at least 5 of her peers so as to be able for everyone to get some interesting feedback. I must confess that this is my favourite method: I really get the impression that it's while trying to assess the work of someone else that we really get the whole dimension of the notions we're supposed to have acquired. And I have received some really interesting reviews, full to the brim with wise advice.

In the end, we get a nice little virtual diploma vouching for our participation and success in class. Some courses even propose (for some sum of money) to validate more officially your participation so as to be able to bring it out in a professional context. But, in my humble opinion, the interesting part is really in the pleasure of learning new things, in a well delimited, interactive and motivating environment.

You've guessed right: I'm in love with MOOCs. If you've got a somewhat school-loving soul, or if you're just hungry for knowledge, you're in for a treat. So let me tell you that I immediately signed in for three new courses and that my schedule is full until next year...

In conclusion, here is a little collection of courses that you might like. Have fun!

Licence Creative CommonsThe above photo was taken by me in Paris, in February 2013.
This photo and text are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License.


  1. interesting post and extremely well written :)

  2. Thank you very much Merica!