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How successful are online courses?

I read a good article about massive online open courses (MOOC) and thought I’d share my recent experience.

I signed up for MIT’s Learning Creative Learning in February. This was the first I’d heard of MOOC’s and I was pretty excited. I’d also just been appointed my department’s learning champion so I figured a course that explored the theory and practice of learning would be great.

There are several learning champions in our division so I shared the sign up page with them first. I got one taker out of about ten people. Then I shared with the wider learning department, and got another six takers. Then finally, I shared with the rest of my department who I thought would be less likely to want to take part. However, as it happens, I did get another taker. So, that’s eight and me makes nine.

MIT rather cleverly wanted to see how they could make this work to a large audience (somewhat in the area of 10,000 people signed up) and they choose to use Google+ as their delivery platform. This allowed them to start a community, and use hangouts for the weekly live discussions. They also split up the online students into rough geographical areas and suggested they set up their own communities for smaller group discussion.

I’d received a join code when I signed up and had shared this with the people in my business so when they signed up, we could be grouped together. When I sent out my first email to the group, I didn’t get a single reply. Hmm.

After a couple of days and a couple more emails, I figured that no one in my company had actually gone through with the sign up despite being initially enthusiastic, so I joined another online group for discussing the material.

I found the first sessions really involving and although a little put off by the list of suggested reading (which they provided) I was pleased for taking part and felt I was learning something. I wrote a blog post after the second session and shared it with my new online group and had some good feedback. Time, as always, is tight and I was fitting this in after putting the kids to bed. Practically that meant I would start watching the recording of the live session at about 8:30pm. Each session is an hour. When the session is engaging watching the video is no problem at all and I would take notes to further encourage my brain to stay focused, but when the sessions were less meaty I was definitely struggling to stay interested.

Each week the level of reading varied as well. After the first week with a massive reading list that took a couple of hours to get through, there would be a week with no reading but projects involving Scratch (a tool to learn basic programming). This isn’t the kind of thing you can pick up at 8:30pm so I pushed the activity back until the weekend. But weekend’s, despite seeming a vast expanse of free time, very quickly get eaten with family and other activities. MIT tried to reassure online students that we should try to do what we could, but definitely not beat ourselves up if we missed the odd live session or activity. But still, I didn’t feel like I was succeeding at what I’d set out to do.

I guess the point of this blog post was really to say that taking part in an online course is difficult. More difficult than I’d envisaged. Yes, I suppose for many, once the initial enthusiasm about starting something new wanes, it’s always going to be difficult to stay motivated. And even though I can see real relevance to my work, it still feels like an activity I should do after I’ve got other things done.

I’m not disheartened about this experience. I’ve learnt things (about the subject and myself) and my eyes have been opened to a subject I had little appreciation of before. I know that I suffer a lack of focus and this has highlighted that to me again. The endless multitude of things to do and things to learn constantly distract me and pulls me in different directions.

We’re now on week 8 which is coincidently called ‘Motivation and persistence’. I’m going to watch the video and look through the reading list to see what catches my eye. After that, well I’m going to play it by ear.

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