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Who are MOOCs for?


Many have declared 2012 the “year of the MOOC,” or Massive Open Online Course. From Coursera to edX and beyond, there’s no shortage of opportunities to access these online courses, with increasing options for students to earn digital learning badges, certificates, or academic credit.

As an instructional designer, I see my peers and colleagues enter the fray to develop MOOCs and wonder how they analyze learner characteristics as part of the design process. The motives for organizations and institutions to offer these courses are many, but exactly who should be taking a MOOC?

This question emerged from an OpenCourseWare Consortium (OCW) webinar last week, focused on MOOCs as “evolving models of curriculum delivery and assessment.” And it’s a difficult one to answer, even for the three panelists who represented a range of perspectives. With so many different types of MOOCs and MOOC-like environments available, this popular new option is not one-size-fits-all.

A Diverse Group of Students

Most MOOCs have few or no enrollment requirements other than to register online. If there are no pre-requisites, classmates may be starting and ending at different points in terms of knowledge level and achievement, but all have the potential for a positive outcome based on individual learning goals.

  • Working Professionals: For those seeking additional skills and training, MOOCs that focus on a work-related topic can be a source of professional development. These learners may be interested in taking away proof of course completion and learning achievement, and also be motivated by the opportunity to meet others in their field and build a professional network. BlendKit2012, a recent MOOC designed to “provide assistance in designing and developing a blended course,” is one example, which according to facilitator and OCW panelist Kelvin Thompson, included a digital badges system, as well as different levels of participation.
  • College and University Students: Academic credit is one of the latest options associated with MOOCs as offered by partnerships like the one between Coursera and Antioch University, which “can reduce costs, to complete a four-year degree and expand course offerings.” Another recent collaboration between edX, the Harvard and MIT MOOC initiative, and community colleges focuses on workforce readiness, leveraging online materials with existing community college resources to better prepare students for future jobs.
  • Prospective College Students: The University of Wisconsin’s Math MOOC aims to serve high school students and “individuals who have been away from formal instruction,” who are getting ready for college-level work, as well as current students needing extra practice, and those preparing for college entrance exams (e.g., SAT, GRE).
  • Lifelong Learners: For those interested in learning more about a specific topic, who don’t need academic credit or certification, MOOCs can provide the content and often a social learning environment that encourages sharing and discussion. This most closely describes the students in connectivist MOOCs, like the Design Thinking MOOC and Ed Startup 101, which have drawn students interested in the subject matter and collaborative experience. More structured offerings, like those from Coursera and Udacity, are also options for lifelong learners who add to the diversity of the student populations studying together in MOOCs.

Is a MOOC right for you?

These courses are exploratory in nature, and with every iteration of delivery, instructors, institutions, and students learn from the experience. There’s no “right” way to offer a MOOC and there’s no one way to learn from them either. To be successful, however, many of the same learning skills and characteristics often used to describe online students in general are applicable to MOOC learners.

Are you:

  • Self-motivated and self-directed? Most MOOCs enroll large numbers of students (some over 100,000!), so contact with the instructor and assistants may be very limited. It will be up to you to keep up and track your progress. And there will be a lot to do. In “How to Successfully Participate in a MOOC” , Dave Cormier advises, “the more you cover the more you can participate.”
  • Persistent and self-disciplined? Procrastination and poor time management are the enemies of most online students, especially those in MOOCs, which don’t require a financial investment or threaten to damage your transcript with a failing grade if you don’t finish the assignments. Plan for how you’ll fit your MOOC participation into your weekly schedule.
  • Tech-savvy? It’s critical to be comfortable at least with the tools that will be required in the course. Learning Solutions Magazine recommends technology skills in a list of ways to succeed in a MOOC. How will you be expected to communicate and submit your work in the MOOC? Take a look at the course description before registering, and take the time to practice with new technologies that may be required (e.g., blogs, Twitter, YouTube, webcams, discussion forums) before the MOOC starts.
  • Willing to ask questions (and contribute answers)? Peer feedback is a large component of many MOOCs. With one instructor working with thousands of students, you may find your work is reviewed by your classmates, while you review their assignments. MOOC learning environments can also be confusing, even chaotic, at first. Actively seeking more information is important to staying motivated and up-to-date.

They aren’t ideal for every learner or learning goal, but as what we describe now as a “MOOC” continues to evolve, we can expect even more options in the future. If you are curious, try one out. There’s nothing like first-hand experience when it comes to learning.

What are your thoughts about MOOCs? Share your advice for new MOOC learners with us here.

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Image credit: b4b2, Flickr, CC:BY-NC-ND

November 20th, 2012 written by (learn more about our authors)

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