My experience of a MOOC

Infographic on MOOC

Image by Giulia Forsythe (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Recently I decided to complete a MOOC, or massive open online course, through the Coursera.org website. The course I chose to take was ‘Introduction to  Digital Sound Design’ from Emory University and there were two reasons why I gave this a go, firstly, I wanted to increase my knowledge of audio production and secondly, I was interested in how the course content would be conveyed through the use of video and web technology.

The lesson setup was simple, all conveyed through video, a single shot of the lecturer talking to camera which occasionally switched to an interactive whiteboard for displaying the odd graph or audio waveform. Whilst this is rather basic (and slightly disappointing to someone who makes a living from creating video for education), it served its purpose well and the content and delivery were engaging enough to keep me interested. It’s worth noting that this is particularly important when the lure of TV, Xbox or simply avoiding a boring lecture are a closed laptop screen away. As with everything, content is king.

I felt like I was getting the same lesson that any student at Emory University would get, and this was important to me.  I didn’t want to feel like I was being taught something that I could find easily on YouTube, there had to be some added value within the course. I learned more than enough to justify my time taking the course and it didn’t feel too removed from traditional education other than the fact I could choose when to consume the content.

But there were a couple of areas which stood out and made the process different for me. The first was that people were very quick to dismiss parts of the course or exams and claim greater knowledge than the lecturer in the course forums, which made me feel slightly uncomfortable and question why some of the students would choose to be on a course they clearly felt they didn’t need. There were equally good comments and discussion which were incredibly useful, but the bad ones stood out to me. I can’t imagine students doing this in a traditional face to face setting.

The second was the way the assessments were approached. I’ve never liked exams, an entire grade based on a couple of hours worth of work has never really added up for me, so my first thoughts were that I’d probably fail. But these exams were slightly different, they were essentially an online quiz, there was no time limit and I could use all of the available course materials to help,  I just had to ‘promise’ not to use anything else, so Google and Wikipedia were out of the question.

Having the course materials available provided some comfort, at least I could trawl through the hours of video and course transcripts, searching for any answers I didn’t have. What I found though, was that having the opportunity to review answers and find answers I didn’t know, actually reinforced all the learning I had done in the course. Rather than being an assessment of the work I had done so far, the exam became an active part of the learning. I was able to fill in the gaps and parts of the course I wasn’t so sure of and answer the questions on the way. Previously these were the points where I would have to just guess the answer. Passing or failing became less important to me than the process of learning and taking in the content, I was enjoying knowing where I was right and determined to figure out where I was wrong.

Strangely, I found that while I’d preferred the video content for consumption of the lectures, I was using mainly the written content for review during the exam. I’d also much preferred taking the exam at a computer and found the integration of video, quizzes and more traditional content made for a more interesting and complete learning experience which led to me not only passing the course but also coming away feeling like I’d learnt something.

So now I know when to use a notch filter and how to analyse a spectrogram,  which is just a small portion of what I learnt, and all of which has become useful in my job here at The University of Derby. I’m still a little underwhelmed by the way video was used overall, but I know we are already doing good things here at Derby, using video in new ways that really enhance teaching and learning. I hope we can carry that forward as our own online course offerings increase.

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