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Posted on 18 May 2014 at 20:53 by Vicky Lewis

Experiences of Coursera's Globalizing Higher Ed MOOC

There is a lot of debate going on in higher education circles about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

Are they a great tool to broaden access to higher education to new constituencies across the world? Or do they simply offer ‘free university education for highly qualified professionals’ (see this recent Institute of Education blog post )? Are they all about brand-building for the institutions involved? Will they change the face of higher education as we know it? Are they a fad?

This post doesn’t deal with any of those big issues.

Instead I wanted to share a few comments on what it was like for me to study on a MOOC (yes, I’m one of those highly qualified professionals who wouldn’t say ‘no’ to an injection of free university education….). This is very much a personal perspective on one specific MOOC (my first). I know there are others out there who are serial MOOCsters and therefore more qualified than I am to make generalisable comments and valid comparisons.


Anyway, I’ve just completed Coursera’s MOOC on Globalizing Higher Education and Research for the ‘Knowledge Economy’ , led by Kris Olds from University of Wisconsin-Madison (USA) and Susan Robertson from University of Bristol (UK). It was a seven-week programme and was running for the first time.

My main reasons for joining were (a) to experience being a MOOC student and (b) as a mechanism to plunge me back into some of the research and discussion topics that were a large part of my life when I was writing my Doctorate (2003-2007) but had faded into the background somewhat over the last few years.

The things I liked about being a MOOC student on this course were:

  • The subject matter was familiar to me so I didn’t feel out of my depth, but challenging enough to maintain my attention
  • There were interesting (and interested) people from all over the world participating and a willingness to share (and generally to respect) our varying perspectives
  • The study materials were mainly text-based with the odd podcast, which suited my preferred learning style – and they were of extremely high quality with some excellent bespoke contributions from key figures in the field
  • It was really well structured: there was a coherent journey from Week 1 to Week 7 and lots of connections drawn between the material covered during different weeks
  • I could spend as much or as little time on it as I wanted to and vary this from week to week depending on other commitments
  • There were lively discussion forums and people tended to use these as intended for constructive comment and debate
  • There was an opportunity to obtain a Statement of Accomplishment which meant I submitted the required postings to achieve this: for me it was just enough of a carrot to get me from being a passive sponge to a slightly more active contributor
  • I felt able to submit contributions that were not polished (as they would need to be for a journal article for example) but more of a structured musing – and to get others’ feedback on them in a safe environment
  • The course leaders communicated effectively with participants and drew together the emerging themes

The things that were more frustrating (or could have been for some participants) were:

  • The sheer number of participants and range of topics in which we were interested meant that it was very difficult to keep track of the different discussion threads – with the result that my engagement with these was almost random and I have to live with the fact that there are gems I will have missed
  • I can imagine that some participants may have felt isolated – particularly if the subject matter was completely new to them: there was a question in the post-course survey about feeling isolated and I’d be really interested to see the stats on this
  • All submitted material during weekly exercises was automatically associated with a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license, which gives others a good deal of freedom to use, copy, modify, and adapt it commercially with attribution. The contributions of participants therefore formed a Massive Open Online Resource (or MOOR) – described as ‘a trading space for ideas’. For me this was not a problem but I know others had significant reservations.

All in all, I enjoyed my first MOOC experience and am really pleased I stayed the course. Since it was free, there was always a risk that I would make an excuse not to see it through. I’d be interested to know how many people registered but either didn’t materialise or dropped out part way. All credit to the team for putting together a stimulating enough experience to keep me gripped.



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