by Jerod Quinn, Instructional Designer, Reinert Center
By now you have likely heard of Massive Open Online Courses known as MOOCs. They are university-level courses, often taught by experts in the discipline or field, that have open enrollment, with tens of thousands of students in a single class. Massive amounts of hype have surrounded MOOCs in the past year. My intention for this review is not to add to that mountain of hype, but to merely chronicle my experience. I participated in a MOOC through Coursera this summer. Because MOOCs have notoriously high incompletion rates, I vowed to attack my course with the vigor of a hungry dog pouncing on a plate of bacon. Before I began the course, I told myself, “I will not be the typical MOOC student who fades away after week two, but I will be one of the 7.6% who actually complete the course!” As it turns out, I am more of a typical student than I thought.
I knew about the abysmal completion rates before I enrolled, so I decided to pick a course with content that I was most interested in. I have been playing music for the past 11 years and have recently been trying to make that transition from playing other people’s music to writing and creating my own music. With that goal in mind, I enrolled in Songwriting, by Pat Pattison of Berklee College of Music, through the MOOC platform Coursera. It is a six-week course that makes heavy use of video recorded talks. Every Friday the week’s activities and videos are released to the students. There were assignments, peer reviews, a textbook, and quizzes as part of the course. To distill my MOOC experience for readers, I offer an overview in three parts:
- Course Instruction
- Assignments and Activities
- My Reflections
The instruction was delivered through multiple videos that ranged in length between 2 minutes and 20 minutes. Each week would showcase about a dozen videos to watch. These videos were not Pat’s classroom lectures, but were specifically recorded for this course. They were good quality videos, and each video focused on a specific topic without much scope creep. After watching most of the videos I have to say that Pat is indeed an expert in his field. This guy really knows his stuff and he works to make his material accessible and understandable to a broad audience. This is part of the hope of MOOCs: to bring the knowledge of the best and the brightest to people who otherwise would never have access.
Assignments and Activities
This is where I was a “typical” student. Each series of videos also had a series of short quizzes about the main points of the videos. Some of the quizzes had students analyze popular songs according to the week’s topics. You could retake the quizzes as many times as you like as they were self-grading, multiple choice quizzes. I did the first two weeks’ worth of quizzes and then completely stopped when we hit week three. There was nothing frustrating about the week three content that encouraged me to shortcut my experience. Work had been crazy as the school year was beginning to ramp up and my wife, who was going through this course with me, was getting more exhausted from caring for our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and our two-month-old son. The first two weeks we had scheduled some time to watch the videos together, but beginning around week three we decided to veg out instead. I ended up watching them on my own when I got a few minutes here and there. I barely made time for the videos, and didn’t make time for the quizzes.
There were also short writing assignments that were peer-reviewed. I did none of these. One of my friends, Nathaniel, was also taking this course at the same time, and he did the peer-review assignments. This is what he said about the reviews:
“Although the course creators obviously [made] every effort to create peer-review questions that [had] clear goals, I believe there’s a limited value in having peers who may or may not understand the goals of the assignments reviewing [my] work. I found myself scratching my head several times when I would receive a low grade for work I could clearly see met the goals of the assignment. On the other hand, I found that reviewing other peers generally helped me think more clearly about my work, and the knowledge gained through the videos and simply from doing the assignments [had] value whether [my] peers [understood] it or not. If I’m truly not doing my best work, I’d prefer to have the expert on the topic helping me figure it out, rather than someone who knows just about the same amount as I do, and, in some cases, considerably less, apparently.”
You may be wondering why I decided not to participate in the peer reviews. It’s simple: they began in week three.
Pat Pattison is precisely the kind of person you would expect to be teaching songwriting at Berklee: squirrelly, leather jacket, wears a shirt that says “UNSTABLE”, somewhat awkward, amusing, and is demonstratively an expert in his field. I will likely never take a face-to-face class with Pat, but I am indeed grateful for my experience in his MOOC. I learned many valuable lessons from Pat, but there was one specific lesson that was golden. This lesson had to do with the natural rhythm of how we speak, and how this speaking rhythm should be connected to how we sing. I am not going to give this secret away because I had to sit through several hours of video to get to it, but if you are interested in finding out more, there is another section of the course beginning October 14th, 2013.
In thinking about my own failure to be the quality of student I wanted to be, I came up with a theory that would also tie into the greater 7.6% completion rate. Many years ago some friends of mine opened a small music venue with the purpose of giving local musicians who were just starting out a place to debut their music. They had arranged outside funding to support the venue in order to be able to charge people no cover to enter. They didn’t want money to be a hindrance for attendance. People came and then would leave without lingering. Patrons would come for a few songs, wander out, and then return a few more times throughout the night. The venue felt like it had a revolving door. When they decided to charge a nominal entrance fee, $2, people came and they stayed. They were suddenly invested in being part of the crowd. It may have been a small investment, but it was enough to keep them engaged with the purpose of the venue.
Fast-forward to my MOOC experience: I had zero financial investment in the course. If I did all the assignments or did none of them, I was out no money either way. I think I would have been more active in the course had I paid a nominal fee, say $15, to enroll. I would have been financially invested in my own success. That idea may go against the current ethos of MOOCs, but it may be an option as companies or higher learning institutions try to figure out how to monetize MOOCs.
I know some people (often those who have a financial stake in MOOCs) claim MOOCs are the revolution higher education has been waiting for, while others are nervous about how MOOCs could financially wound state universities, which would ultimately hurt the students. Time will tell if MOOCs are a tool, a revolution, or a distraction, but I wonder if the real value of MOOCs is the role they can play in developing and encouraging people to be lifelong learners? That was certainly my experience.
For a great article on the current state of MOOCs in higher education, I recommend this article from Inside Higher Ed: Beyond MOOC Hype, by Ry Rivard.