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How to Succeed in a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC)

Feature

by Apostolos Koutropoulos, Rebecca Hogue

October 8, 2012

“MOOCs provide a new methodology and modality for teaching and learning. This newness does pose some problems for learners, but also provides for exciting new possibilities. MOOCs require learners to be more proactive in their education and in building their personal learning networks (PLNs). Everyone can be successful in a MOOC, provided that certain steps are taken and strategies devised before, during, and after a MOOC.”

In the past couple of years, massive online open courses (MOOCs) have become a trend among many members of the educational online community. This is particularly true of faculty who are interested in open educational resources.

The course Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (CCK), by Stephen Downes, has been offered at least three times since 2008, and additional MOOCs have been offered that cater to a variety of learning topics including digital storytelling, mobile learning (mLearning), learning analytics, the future of education, and instructional ideas for online success, just to name a few.

The structure and design of each MOOC varies. For example, the primary means of communication in a MOOC may be:

  • A learning management system such as Moodle or Blackboard
  • Online groups such as Yahoo or Google groups
  • An aggregation of various distributed platforms, such as blogs and Twitter, or using gRSShopper (pronounced grasshopper)

A MOOC may provide specific content to learn; however, it is more common for MOOCs to provide learning objectives, or topics, and a list of resources to guide learners to those objectives rather than providing didactic content for learners to consume. MOOCs provide opportunities to engage in learning while connecting with others.

Learners who are new to MOOCs, and who are not familiar with self-directed learning, often struggle to find their place within a MOOC. The majority of MOOCs require that the learner be self-directed and proactive in the learning process. In this article, we offer a few recommendations that will help learners make the most of a MOOC experience. In addition to engaging in the course material, they provide learners with an opportunity to develop or expand their personal learning networks (PLN). Learner success is enhanced by learner actions before, during, and after the MOOC.

Before a MOOC starts

When someone is thinking about participating in a MOOC, the first question they should ask themselves is this: “Is this the right MOOC for me?” Similar to credit-bearing courses, MOOCs may have prerequisites, the content may be too basic, or it may not be of interest to the individual.

Review the website

Before a learner decides to join a MOOC, it is a good idea to review the MOOC’s website. Usually, the course website contains the prerequisites, participation guidelines, information on the course structure, each week’s topic, and course resources. Review these prior to starting the course in order to get a better idea of how the MOOC is structured and to figure out how much time to spend. If a learner doesn’t meet the prerequisites, that shouldn’t discourage them; there are usually subject matter experts participating who help foster conversations. At a very minimum, learners can read the conversations, learn from them, and join in the conversation when they feel ready.

Consider time

In addition to prerequisites, it is important to consider the time requirements. If someone doesn’t have the time, perhaps attending every week of the MOOC isn’t what that learner should focus on. In MOOCs, like in other experiences in life, what someone learns is based on how much effort they put into it. Individuals will have a richer experience if they can contribute throughout the course and if they interact with other participants; however, if even if someone is too busy, then they can still have a worthwhile MOOC experience by selecting the specific weeks where the topics are of most interest to them. Those who try to do everything, and who don’t have enough time, are apt to only engage with the content and fellow participants in a peripheral way. If you wish to have a deeper learning experience, then choose the weeks of greatest interest to you and set aside the time to investigate and contribute.

Format and technology concerns

Finally, one thing that characterizes MOOCs is the variability of the format. Some MOOCs have a structure like a traditional course, with specific readings each week, with specific learning outcomes and specific, official tools for communication. This variability is what makes MOOCs both interesting and potentially problematic. Before the MOOC starts, the interested person should take some time to become familiar with the technology they will use. This will allow the participant to focus his or her MOOC time on the content and on interacting with other participants, rather than fiddling with the delivery technologies the course uses.

During a MOOC

Once a participant has registered for the MOOC, it’s time to learn. On Week 1, what to do first?

Introduction (it’s more than just common courtesy)

The first task should be self-introduction. Even if the learner has not yet decided how much he or she wishes to participate in the MOOC, and even if the plan is only to lurk (that is, read the various conversations but not actively contribute to them), introducing oneself is still important.

This helps the other MOOC participants know who is participating and helps the organizers better judge the amount of participation and the demographic of the participants. This way the organizers can potentially tailor content for the various groups that are part of the MOOC. A personal introduction is, in a sense, an initiation into the MOOC’s community of inquiry. An introduction might include the participant’s name, occupation, areas of expertise, and the reason for interest in the particular MOOC. Some MOOCs even encourage participants to include a picture or add themselves to a crowd-source map of participants. Making the introduction, and reading other participants’ introductions, is the first step towards building or augmenting a PLN.

Participation

To get the most out of a MOOC, a person needs to participate. The more someone participates, the more that person is likely to make meaningful connections with other participants, which in turn helps deepen the learning experience.

There is a benefit in reading the materials for all weeks and participating as much as possible each week. Remember, it’s not just about the materials, but rather it’s about the materials and the learning community— and every participant is part of that learning community. By participating each week, learners can gain both a better understanding and an expanded understanding through the contributions of their peers.

How does one participate in a MOOC? The first step is to read what the facilitators have posted as resources for the week. This material acts as an initiation into the week’s topic, and quite often it functions to seed discussion. After reading the material, a participant can choose to investigate the topic further by finding their own readings (Google Scholar is a good way to search for readings), or they can post their reflections on the resources.

When creating a post about the readings, participants should try to link the course content to their life experiences, as these reflections are valuable to them and to others who read the posts. It is important to take some time to read other participant’s reflections, as they are likely to share insights and help deepen understanding of the topic. If a participant finds a particularly useful additional resource, they should share it with the larger community. When participants find that a post was particularly meaningful to them, they often take a moment or two to reply to it, and perhaps share their own insight. This dialogue encourages participation and helps to foster deeper meaning through connections and conversations.

Formal and informal facilitation

MOOCs are facilitated, they are not taught. MOOC facilitators are individuals passionate about the topic they are facilitating, and they have come to share their passion with the participants. Facilitators also, quite frequently, are participants in the MOOC as well, so they are, in essence, the peers of the others in the course. This means that MOOCs don’t have the unequal power relationships one might find in traditional lecture-listed classroom models. There is no single person that checks to see that people are participating or to encourage further participation. Each participant shares the responsibility for keeping the community alive and active. The facilitators are not likely to answer everyone’s questions, as they rely heavily on the community to support the conversations. In the end it’s through peer learning and peer-to-peer connections that learning occurs in MOOCs, so it’s critical for each participant to reach out and connect with someone.

Questions

If a participant has questions, they should feel free to ask them! Like most educational ventures, there are bound to be questions. Asking questions means not only closing open gaps in knowledge, it also gives everyone an opportunity to discover other potential gaps—things that they didn’t know that they don’t know—and thus gives them an opportunity to fill those gaps as well. In the same vein, if a participant knows the answer to a question that someone else has posted (or has an opinion about the answer), they should feel free to post a reply. It is through these conversations that meaningful learning occurs.

Dealing with mass

MOOCs are massive; after all, that is what the “M” in MOOC stands for. They are massive in terms of the number of participants, and are generally massive in the number of conversations that occur. To avoid the feeling of information overload, or the feeling of being overwhelmed, participants must give themselves permission to not read everything. As Clay Shirky said, it’s not information overload, it’s filter failure. In a regular course, the instructor filters information to avoid this overload. In a MOOC, this is each participant’s job. Because it is often not possible to read everything, individuals must filter for topics that they want to read, and then read and respond to only those. If a blog post and discussions are interesting but it’s not possible to read the details right away, participants can bookmark them or add them to a tool like Instapaper, Pocket, or Evernote. This way, when there is a spare moment—for example, on the train going home—a learner can return to those readings. The nice thing about MOOCs is that even though the MOOC itself is time-bound, the content is not. Everyone can always go back to MOOC content (and participant blogs and discussions) long after the MOOC is over—it’s not necessary to process all the information immediately.

Etiquette

Before we finish this section, we’d like to discuss MOOC etiquette. To help reduce information overload, before sharing resources or posting a question, participants should learn to search to see if someone has already posted about it. If someone has, the best approach is to reply within that thread rather than create a new one. For example, if there is an introductions thread, participants should post their introductions within that thread. In addition, when replying to a message, it’s not necessary to quote the entire message within the reply. The best practice is to edit the quoted text to only include the portions that are relevant to the reply. Finally, spelling does matter. Proofreading posts and checking them for spelling mistakes and typos makes it easier for others to read. This is especially important when MOOC participants come from a variety of countries, as many may not speak English well and may rely on some automated translation tools (like Google Translate) for language assistance.

Post-MOOC: stay connected!

Even when the MOOC is over, the learning doesn’t have to stop! Remember the introductions at the beginning of the course? The people who introduced themselves probably shared with the group their blog, Twitter, and LinkedIn addresses. Chances are that they are still thinking about the topics and materials discussed in the MOOC. They may even be posting their reflections on the completion of the MOOC. Others may have already connected with these individuals on Twitter, LinkedIn, and their blogs while the MOOC was in session, so keeping up with what they write, and commenting back on those posts, isn’t going to be much of an issue. It is good to connect while everyone’s contributions to the MOOC are still familiar. By connecting to people who were fellow MOOC participants, learners are augmenting their PLNs. Thus, any new developments and news on the topic of the MOOC will be available to everyone in their network through the magic that is RSS. Since participants commonly blog for some time about the MOOC discussion topics, and chances are high that other participants are following their blogs, they are also contributing to the knowledge creation of a large group as well!

Finally, now that the MOOC is over, participants likely have a little more free time for collaboration. They can reach out to some fellow MOOC participants who have similar ideas to theirs. An ad-hoc working group would be simple to organize to explore topics of mutual interest. These topics may be research-based or practice-based. The point is that there are probably professionals out there who are thinking of things to work on based on their MOOC experiences, but it would be easier to accomplish with a small group of like-minded individuals than working on solving the problem on their own. Through extended practice and collaboration come greater opportunities.

Conclusion

MOOCs provide a new methodology and modality for teaching and learning. This newness does pose some problems for learners, but also provides for exciting new possibilities. Some of the learning skills acquired by learners through face-to-face coursework and traditional online programs are transferable to MOOC learning; however, the distributed nature of the MOOC and the massive number of participants doesn’t allow for the traditional method of disambiguation: going to the teacher for an explanation. MOOCs require learners to be more proactive in their education and in building their PLNs. Everyone can be successful in a MOOC if they take certain steps and devise strategies before, during, and after a MOOC. If you are interested in trying out a MOOC, and you’re interested in mobile learning, the good news is that the opportunities will only increase from one month to the next.

(Editor’s Note: You can subscribe at mooc.ca to Stephen Downes’ daily MOOC Newsletter to watch for new MOOC announcements. Stephen also provides a list of open online course sources.)

References

Ballmer, S. (n.d.) Developers! Developers! Developers! Developers!
 Retrieved January 9, 2012 from:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8To-6VIJZRE

Garrison, D. R., T. Anderson, and W. Archer. (2000) “Critical Inquiry in a
 Text-based Environment: Computer Conferencing in
 Higher Education.The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Freire, P. (2000) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum Press.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978) Mind in Society. Harvard University Press.

Krashen, S.D. (1987) Principles and Practice in Second Language
  Acquisitions
. Prentice-Hall. (Affective Filter Hypothesis)

Siemens, G. (2005) “Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.”
International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance
 Learning
. 2(1). http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_05/article01.htm

Shirky, C. (2008) It’s Not Information Overload, it’s Filter Failure. (Video).
 Web 2.0 Expo NY. Retrieved on January 9, 2012 from:
http://blip.tv/web2expo/web-2-0-expo-ny-clay-shirky-shirky-com-it-s-not-information-overload-it-s-filter-failure-1283699

Links to MOOCs & Software mentioned

MobiMOOC: http://mobimooc.wikispaces.com/

gRSShopper: http://grsshopper.downes.ca/

CCK: http://cck12.mooc.ca

DS106: http://www.ds106.us

LAK12: http://lak12.mooc.ca/

Google Scholar: http://scholar.google.com


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Hello there, very good article. Thank you. :-)

To be honest, what attracted me was the greek name of Apostolos. I am fun of OERs and I don't find often greeks interested in such kind of subjects. So it was a great pleasure to see a greek co-author here.

The article is very interesting and I wish I had read it before my first MOOC. Lurking is indeed a very common phenomenon specially in MOOCs, and it's very nice that you rise the feeling of guilty from this. We shouldn't judge someone's participation as "successful" or "not successful" based on the common standards of a traditional class.

A MOOC is a different way of learning and it has it's own standards. And yes, MOOC is a case where a lurker can be considered as a successful participant.
Great MOOC tutorial:)
Geia sou Annak :-)

I agree, success does have certain values associated with it; but as MOOCs (at least "xMOOC"s) are becoming more mainstream and get closer to some sort of credit-giving process, "success" (what it means to successfully complete something) is something that ought to be discussed in some fashion. Granted, I don't think we will come up with one answer (at least for "cMOOC"s) given their philosophical underpinnings.

I think it would be interesting to have a mini conference (or unConference!) on the subject of MOOCs and "success" in MOOCs to get some of these issues out in the air and discussed more in a succinct forum. (perhaps "succinct" might be counterintuitive for a MOOC hehehe) :-)

It's too bad that there aren't more fellow Greeks out there that are active in this arena, but maybe we can create a Greek Working Group (or guild, to borrow from MMO terminology ;-) ) to start tackling these issues!

- Apostolos
Regarding the primary means of communication in a MOOC such as Blackboard and Moodle, technical problems such as browser compatibility, download crash etc. are happening to me and my peers almost every semester. Particularly regarding the efficiency of learning on Blackboard, for example, if you are required to complete a quiz on Blackboard, you have to spend at least 10-15 minutes to read the technical instructions to correct the setting and version of your browser, the running computer system etc. AND indeed you have to spend another 10 minutes to complete a required sample quiz after completing the required settings based on the technical instructions as a test to all your computer settings. After spending about half an hour, you can actually start the actual quiz.
The process can be really irritating and annoyed after you spend half an hour on the technical settings, and other errors occurred when you doing the quiz.
So, MOOC technicians should definitely seek ways to get rid of at least the frequent occurred technical problems to facilitate the learning experience, such as the problem of browser compatibility.
@ TextbookFair

Hello "TextbookFair", you are absolutely right that specially in MOOCs the technical obstacles or requirements must be minimized... eliminated if possible, otherwise the "Massive" participation will be just a theory.

But being a Moodler for more than 5 years, I can assure you that the case you describe with the quiz, doesn't due with the particular LMS.

@ Apostolos
Thanks for replying Apostole, I wasn't aware of this trend of "credit-giving" process and I must say that sounds really interesting.

Of course when it's time for "credits" there must be some prerequisites.

Perhaps specially for MOOCs could be adjusted different levels of accreditation. To those who achieved the "lurker's" level provide a Certificate for "attending" (perhaps no credit), to those who have achieved a good score, provide a Certificate for "participation" (with some or no credits) and to those who fully participated a Certificate of Excellence! (with credits).

(?)
@TextbookFair
Thanks for the feedback @TextbookFair :) When we first conceived of this article, the xMOOC (think coursera et al) hadn't caught on fire yet. The MOOC described in this article is a MOOC that is more guided by generative knowledge creation. I think quizzes (on any LMS) are only one way of assessing basic knowledge (think of it as the lower level of Bloom’s taxonomy). While this may be important, the design of the MOOC (especially the intended learner) and the communication of that design to the learner is really important in success of learners in that specific MOOC :)

@AnnaK
I like how you’ve setup the progression for this. I think badges may be a good way to go with this. For example, see David Wiley’s introduction to open education MOOC: http://openeducation.us/badges for one possible implementation. Another possible implementation is how BlendKit2012 did it: http://blended.online.ucf.edu/blendkit-course-badges/. This is an area that I am interested in further exploring :)
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