Having had a previous foray into the world of Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs as they are known, I was left dejected and less than impressed at the much hailed future of lifelong learning. Previously I attempted an Introduction to Philosophy through Coursera. Whilst it had excellent material, it failed to suck me in for several reasons, firstly it was paced in a rigid way, I could only plough through the material at a pace determined by someone else. Secondly, the pace of interaction in the social fora was so rapid due to the number of participants that I found it impossible to keep up and finally, the lack of incentive to persevere with it.
When I discovered that through futurelearn the OU were developing their own platform and system of MOOCs, whilst cynical from my previous experience, I was also excited, having been an advocate of their open distance learning education and the way it has changed my own life. I have signed up for a number of courses over the next few months and will share some of my thoughts and feelings on how these sit with me, my way of learning, and the gap left by taking a break from formal study.
The first course to open that I signed up for was The secret power of brands. I’ll admit to having a passing interest in brands from my initial degree in multimedia design and later work within sales and marketing. Honestly though, it is not something I would have chosen to study formally, and that is the big plus. I have found myself being limited in my choices so it has forced me to consider studying things I have a marginal interest in., who knows, maybe these small tasters might open up a whole new field that I hadn’t encountered before? Incidentally, I have also signed up for Web Science, Muslims in Britain and Causes of War. quite an eclectic mix really and i’ll be interested to see how each makes use of the platform and tolls futurelearn has to offer.
Looking specifically at the Secret power of brands and having made it through the first weeks material, I have to say there have been some pleasant surprises. Firstly the material seems to be in more manageable chunks, 5 minute videos, 5 minute audios, single pages of text. This allows for dipping in and out over morning coffee and in breaks during the day. For me this was something that let the previous MOOC model down, I often don’t have half an hour to watch a lecture in one go. The other great thing was the variety of media used and the simple yet effective multiple choice quiz at the end of the week that caused me to go back and check some bits I wasn’t sure of.
It is not all praise, i’m afraid, there still seem to be two big issues, one could be addressed easily, and one may be the elephant in the room with this form of learning. The fact that the material is drip fed is a big down side for me. I may have a spare Sunday this week in which I was interested in devoting to study but next week I might have a commitment. This is how peoples lives work in the real world and that flexibility is important if these sort of courses want to retain participants to the end without them abandoning them because they get too behind. In not sure this isn’t an issue that can’t be solved, yes it would remove some of the social aspects with people working at different paces but that leads me onto the second gripe. The model for discussion of issues is not right. Comment boxes with the opportunity to respond don’t make people engage and come back, they make the exercise feel like a ‘respond to question and tick off the list’ exercise rather than one in collaborative learning. I also doubt that with the sheer numbers of students whether this would be possible anyway given my previous experience?
From what I have seen so far, futurelearn is definitely a step forward but until someone wakes up to the need for flexibility in informal learning and ways to deal with social interaction on the scale involved I can see drop out rates still being one of the biggest issues in the world of MOOCs, however, I will keep an open mind as the weeks continue.