Confessions of a MOOC Cynic

Photo by Lewis Keegan on Unsplash

I’m back at uni for the new term and delving into the next assessment, which requires us to identify, enter, and evaluate an online learning community. Although the remit refers to undertaking an online short course, the definite steer seems to be to take a MOOC. This appears to be down to the three elements that distinguish a MOOC from the broader group of online courses out there: lower commitment, affordable, and more flexibility.

Last term, when this project was mentioned, we were asked to reflect on what sort of course we might want to take. I was excited at the prospect: the online CELTA course had always been on my bucket list and, in addition, would be certificated. I’ve always been a sucker for an official piece of paper and a recognised qualification as a result of my efforts.

However, further research made it clear that this wouldn’t work: the CELTA course requires full attendance for up to five hours at live sessions across ten weeks. The assessments are rigorous and although the structure for the part-time model clearly schedules these hours around traditional working patterns to accommodate full-time workers, the risk that I would miss one or two classes due to other commitments was too great.

So, sadly, the CELTA was too much of a challenge to take on in addition to my job, studies, and PhD applications, not to mention if I wished to have any time with my family. I then turned to looking at short courses provided by a variety of universities. One requirement of the assessment is that we identify a course that we can use in a professional development capacity. Considering my role and my work with business schools, I considered taking one of the many online executive education courses that unfailingly pop up on my LinkedIn and Facebook page: Imperial College, SOAS, Insead, and any number of business schools of high repute offer these programmes, ideal for the working student.

These courses comprise a few weeks of study, with a commitment of approximately 4 hours a week. Some offer a weekly live session, while others run fully asynchronously. They all have one thing in common, unfortunately: they come at a huge cost, with fees tending to start at about £900 and increasing up to £3,000 or £4,000. Quite simply, these costs are prohibitive for me. Some of them don’t even offer an official certificate.

Which brings me to MOOCs. I’ve always had a complicated relationship with MOOCs, or Massive Online Open Courses. I’ve participated in quite a few over the last few years: a course on online apprenticeships and another on online learning design offered through Future Learn and a course from Open University on Universal Design for Learning which supported my studies last term. I’ve only ever completed one, the Open University course, and I can only assume this is because it was short enough to complete in one sitting. Essentially, as a someone who has always valued learning, I find the MOOC and its proper place in the learning journey problematic.

So, what exactly is my issue with the MOOC? By all appearances, MOOCs provide an openness that aligns with so many other openings that have resulted from digital education: OER, OEP and the Open University. In his study of Ed Tech, Martin Weller refers to MOOCs as ‘an idea waiting to happen” (2020) attesting to its inevitability. Of course, the term ‘open’ in education is problematic and I could write a separate piece arguing both for and against the openness of a MOOC or any other use or abuse of ‘open’ in online learning.

I don’t question the MOOC’s contribution to learning and the wider impact on digital education. It coalesces with all of the pedagogical developments that have fostered the development of online education and have, in turn, been seemingly vindicated: social constructivist forms of learning empowering the learner, democratisation and inclusiveness of learning, and a connectivism creating multiple networks for learners.

And yet, on a personal level, I don’t like them. They feel too informal, too easy to join and so, too easy to leave. They are free which is wonderful for my wallet but feels less like an investment in my education as a result. It would be wrong to say that I have not learned anything from previous MOOCs but at the same time, they feel more like filler and less like substance.

I also question the success of creating online learning communities in the current formation of the MOOC. Previous MOOCs have presented me with forum and Padlet discussions, where we share ideas and applications of what we have learned. I’ve found some benefit in this. Future Learn certainly structures the forum effectively but I can’t say that I feel a sustained sense of belonging to a group when I know that people join and leave on any given day. I compare this to the debates I participate in on my MSc course, where we all work over a sustained period together. It feels as though there has been an investment in creating a strong learning community in the course that has never been replicated in my own experiences on a MOOC, despite the best of intentions. There is a respect and trust that can only be formulated over time and time is no friend to the MOOC.

I’m prepared to be surprised this term. I have created a short list of courses to share with my classmates, and we are feeding back on this. I think I might try a Coursera course this time around, given I have not yet extended my MOOC participation into providers other than Future Learn and OU. It might be useful to consider how different providers approach the MOOC from a pedagogical point of view. Will different interpretations of the MOOC win me over?

Weller, M. (2020). 25 years of ed tech. Athabasca University Press.

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