How well does a MOOC student learn their chosen subject? While pondering this question I realised how crazy it is to expect to categorise MOOCs as if they are all the same. The experience of learning of MOOCs can be as varied as the experience of learning in different universities or schools.
So I want to focus on what makes one MOOC experience different from another. As a student on a couple of MOOCs the most significant difference I noticed was between a synchronous MOOC and an asynchronous MOOC. A synchronous MOOC is one in which all students take the course at the same time (as in Coursera) while students taking an asynchronous MOOC take it whenever they like (as in Udacity).
Let’s compare these.
|Start||The course is advertised to start on a specific date. Students must wait until the start date and be ready to start. Requires some forward planning which may be a measure of commitment.||Students can start immediately and get satisfaction of having taken action. If there is an immediate need for a course this option is much more appealing. However, it may encourage students to start a course without considering the time to be committed to it.|
|Pace||The pace of the course is determined by the teacher. Course content and activities are commonly released on according to a schedule. Given the high drop-out rates in MOOCs this fixed pace approach may leave some people behind.||The pace of the course is determined by the student. They can complete the course very quickly or take their time as life’s other demands intrude. Without the imposition of deadlines there may be low incentive to allocate time and effort in a busy life.|
|Finish||The course has a schedule finish date so participants can schedule the period they need to apply effort.||There is no imperative to complete the course by a fixed date so many may never complete, without making any conscious decision to drop out.|
|Activity||Activities can be schedule to involve other students who are at the same stage of the course. As peer discussion is often seen as a vital part of learning this is a major advantage. However, early studies (Milligan, 2012) suggest that while some people engage actively, others lurk (purposefully not engaging), and another group wanted more guidance.||Synchronous activities are not possible in an asynchronous course but, over a period of time, discussion forums develop which are probably just as effective for lurkers. Those seeking activity network building opportunities are very disadvantaged in an asynchronous course.|
|Feedback||Feedback in synchronous courses can often rely on social networking. This tends to be unqualified feedback with no way of gauging the value of the feedback.||The lack of a synchronous cohort of students means that feedback is usually through computer-based interaction. This can be quite frequent and if it is suitably diagnostic may give the student a feeling of guidance.|
After experiencing both types of MOOC my personal preference was for an asynchronous MOOC with regular formative assessment. As one who does not very actively engage in online social networks I felt I was receiving some guidance and focussed advice. However, as pointed out by Annie Murphy Paul (2013), online courses need to really build a student-teacher bond and engender feelings of mentorship, guidance and presence. Being part of a learning community is a personal one-to-one, or one-to-few, interaction not a massive experience shared with 50,000 others.