The Coursera Experience

I did a MOOC in 2015. MOOC means Massive Open Online Course; such courses were once thought to be opportunities for universities to raise some money, but they have turned out to be a Massively Over-rated Opportunity for Cash. Having said that, they allow pretty much anybody with a good enough internet connection to get access to some decent educators, and if they want to pay the fee (in the case of the course I did I think it was AU$ 50) they can get a certificate as well as the experience.  And MOOCs allow universities to engage with a wider community, which I think is really important.

The certificate, redacted.

The certificate, redacted.

The MOOC I did was called ‘Learning to Teach Online‘ (LTTO).  It seemed like just a lot of people expressing opinions to me, but that’s not what I am here to talk about.  I should add that my work was running it and I did not have to pay.

The technical experience of doing the course was mixed. While I learned a few things about teaching online, I would also make a few comments about MOOCs themselves.

  • Designers must make sure that navigation around the webpages is really intuitive.  The educators are experts.  They should sit with a complete MOOC novice and see how that person is able to find information and navigate the website, in this case Coursera.  I found files hiding in obscure corners of the website, in particular…
  • Transcripts of videos are really, really, really useful.  When you have a talking head, the information density is often really really low.  I got impatient a lot of the time waiting for something useful to be said.  They repeat themselves, they repeat what others have said in other videos.  A transcript lets me skim over it quickly, looking for the actual information.  I know this means we’re just using written information, so it’s rather like an old correspondence course, but the written word remains more definitive and instant than a video.
  • Audio: I can do other things (drive, mostly) while listening to audio.  I accessed the lectures for English Grammar at University of Canberra last year almost exclusively while driving to/from work.  I can’t drive and watch a video at the same time.  Not if I want to live, which at the moment I do.
  • So the content needs to be easy to find and available in all three formats.
  • Login management is really important.  If you want to undertake the course flexibly (in the office, at home, mobile) then the software needs to run on multiple devices and you need to know your logins.  Sounds obvious but in these days of getting computers to remember your passwords, it is easy to lose some of the benefits of the course being online if you can only access it from one machine.
  • Many, many of the videos made fatuous use of multiple camera angles (what is this fashion of cutting to a shot of the person speaking in profile?  Just production staff justifying their existence, I imagine).  Similarly, there were graphics with no data in them.  I am not a child, I am not interested in interesting shapes floating aimlessly around a screen.  Graphics are great for showing actual data (graphs, numbers, diagrams) but when someone is just spouting opinions, they really do nothing.
  • I know of at least one person who tried to do the course but there were technical issues (lost communications and so forth) that prevented her from being able to complete it.

So: I learned a little bit (what do I expect in 6 weeks?).  I learned about the existence and uses of online teaching tools, and how they can be applied, and what the pitfalls are.  Apparently the pitfall that says “Don’t make your videos just a bunch of talking heads” was missed by the educators themselves, I’m sorry to say… and I contributed to discussions with people from around the world, and I managed to work out what I was supposed to do and then do it and then get a mark at the end.  So it worked for me.  No process is perfectly smooth, but providing the information in three formats — text, audio, video — made up for a lot.  It gave me the flexibility that I needed to get the course done in between my actual duties.


Now for hyperfinecourse.


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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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