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Making the Most of a MOOC

Would you like to take an online course from Duke, Stanford, The University of Edinburgh, or the University of Toronto? You can, via their partnerships with Coursera. The list of schools that have recently announced MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) development is impressive and continues to grow.

There are those who embrace the MOOC as the future of education and those that decry the format as a trend that will fade or a marketing avenue for organizers and sponsors. There's no shortage of coverage and debate, and even as I write this post I see new articles, responses, and ideas about MOOCs pass by in my Twitter stream.

What's the secret to the latest popularity of the MOOC format or platform? It may have something to do with the free and open access, but there are many additional components to consider. If you haven't experienced a MOOC, now may be a great time to explore the options. These online learning experiences that can be described as "connectivist MOOCs," which are more learner-driven, and "xMOOCs", like those offered by Coursera and Udacity, are taking off as universities explore the possibilities, making it more mainstream and potentially more structured in the process.

Benefits of Participation

As student or instructor interested in expanding your online learning horizon a bit, what are the practicalities of participation in a MOOC?

  • Partnership and Collaborations: MOOCs involve a "massive" number of students and are also often developed and presented by multiple instructors, facilitators, and speakers.
  • Personal Learning Goals: Laura Pasquini has blogged about her MOOC experiences and states in a recent post that her "intention when signing up for this type of free, online learning was to support [her] own professional development and expose [herself] to new learning concepts." Through a variety of topics and sessions, as well as ways in which you participate (i.e., live events, discussion boards, social media), you can in many MOOCs create your own experience to focus on the goals you want to reach.
  • Network Building: My MOOC experience, while limited in scope, really helped me expand my learning network. My first course sparked my first blog and a subsequent experience helped me become more familiar with Twitter. You'll work with, and learn from, the other students in a MOOC who are often participating from around the globe.

Look for the following elements when deciding whether or not to join a MOOC:

  • Learning Objectives: Have the organizers identified learning goals or will you need to create these to help guide your experience? There are pros and cons to each approach, but it's good to know what to expect before you get started. Rebecca Hogue, a participant in 2011's eduMOOC, presents some of the complexities of self-directed MOOC learning and one example of creating your own objectives.
  • Target Audience: What group will the MOOC benefit the most? Learning from the other members of the course, not just the presenters and materials provided, is part of the experience. Explore information provided about the topics to be covered as well as, if available, a roster of those who've already registered.
  • Schedule and Expectations: Many MOOCs post a schedule of sessions and other weekly activities even before the course starts. Review this and any additional information provided about the expectations of participants and the online tools that will be used to communicate and collaborate.
  • Documented Learning: How can you document your experience and achievements in a MOOC? This may be built into the course with digital learning badges, testing options, or certificates of completion. A recent #IOLchat session included thoughts about academic credit, which may be an option with some MOOCs in the not-too-distant future. In more informal MOOCs, you may want to document your learning through blog posts and other self-initiated formats to provide evidence of participation and learning.

Prepare for Challenges

The challenges of MOOC participation are similar to other types of online learning – you'll need good time management skills and motivation to stay involved in the course. Registering for a free course comes with different implications than a class with tuition in which you may be more motivated to both show up and stick with it to the end. Block time on your calendar to be active in the course and set weekly, even daily, goals for your participation that include specific tasks to accomplish.

One of the most commonly mentioned issues of MOOCs is the lack of instructor-student interaction. These courses often rely on a group of facilitators instead of an instructor in a traditional role, and with many learners enrolled and participating across time zones, the experience of meeting and working with the experts that present the course becomes more difficult.

Know that the format is evolving. One of the great things about MOOCs is that they are in many ways organic – participants can make of them what they will, which can mean less structure, but more exploration. Be willing to join in, meet the potential challenges, and help shape the experience.

Try one out!

This format may or may not be for you – as with many things related to educational and instructional technology, it's about trying it out. If you are interested in experiencing a MOOC for yourself, here are a few courses scheduled over the next several months covering general topics related to online learning and higher education:

  • MobiMOOC: Running from September 8th through 30th, this course is organized with a wiki and "will focus in learning/training with mobile devices."
  • CFHE12: The Current/Future State of Higher Education course starts on October 8th and is organized by a consortium that includes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, EDUCAUSE, Georgia Tech, and many more. It promises to "evaluate the change pressures that face universities and help universities prepare for the future state of higher education."
  • MOOC MOOC: "A MOOC about MOOCs" from Hybrid Pedagogy takes place August 12th through 19th.

While MOOCs may not be the end product of the latest evolution in higher education, they may help us reach the next level. There's something to the old saying about focusing on the journey, not the destination that applies here as educators and students alike experiment with new ways of communicating and learning.

What are your questions about learning in MOOCs? Do you have any advice for a first-timer? Share your concerns and experiences with us here.