Experience with a MOOC

I’m currently doing a MOOC on Drug Discovery. The 9-week course is delivered by academics from the School of Pharmacy in the University of San Diego. It’s a topic in which I have both an academic interest and a personal one and I was looking forward to it. Over 14,000 people are enrolled on the course!

The basic structure of the MOOC is to watch two lectures per week. The lectures are pretty conventional and involve listening to the lecturer while looking at a series of Powerpoint slides. I have to say, I find them pretty un-engaging and the temptation to check my emails or Ninth Level Ireland is irresistible at times. I usually play them at 1.25x speed; any faster and the lecturer begins to sound like a chipmunk.

The assessment of the MOOC is based on 50% for the short quizzes that follow each lecture and 50% for preparing an assignment called a Life Cycle Strategic Plan. The plan can be prepared in groups or as an individual. I must confess that I won’t be preparing any plan as it is the sort of thing I absolutely abhor . The quizzes are very easy and can often be answered with a bit of common sense. In any event, you can take them up to ten times.

I feel that I’m learning a little bit about drug discovery but, more importantly,  the experience has made me wonder how the online approach would work for a 20-year old student. This is what is advocated in the ‘flipped classroom’ concept. The student watches the lecture online, wherever he or she likes, and does the more active, stimulating learning at college. The theory is that the student can stop and ‘rewind’ as many times as he or she wants, focusing on points that they may find difficult.

Now, paying attention while you’re actually present in a classroom or lecture hall is hard enough – even with a very engaging lecturer – but it will take a very special lecturer and an extremely motivated student for the online lecture concept to be effective. The temptation to retreat to the warm embrace of Facebook could well be overwhelming.

And this, to me, illustrates the fundamental fallacy with this whole online lecture approach. I think it is being driven by many people who have a vested interest in, or even just a huge enthusiasm for,  all things online. More often than not, they have had a negative experience of traditional education. They compare conventional education at its worst with online education at its best.

Before people rush headlong into this kind of approach to education, they need to stop and put themselves in the mind of the student. The online lecture approach assumes that the student is motivated to watch the lecture in the first place, has the determination to focus on the material in a highly distracting environment, and is willing to commit to the additional time that a stop-and-rewind approach to ‘attending’ a lecture is supposed to demand.

Mind you, online education is not something you can rush into because the amount of time and effort that goes into developing online materials is huge and makes other academic activities such as doing research very challenging indeed.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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3 Responses to Experience with a MOOC

  1. cormac says:

    I’ve been wondering about this. I’ve always thought that students quite enjoy the classroom aspect of lectures – for example, our physics students look forward to the lectures where they are mixed in with general science students. Not sure why anyone would assume watching the lecture on one’w one would be more, rather than less interesting!

  2. triona says:

    I far prefer learning in a classroom environment, I tend to engage with lecturers/speakers and found that I absorbed more information that way than trying to study at home. I’ve signed up to the same MOOC course twice and a similar one, and have struggled to keep on top of watching the talks. The main reason I sign up to this same course is that it’s a topic that’s unavailable to me through my college or neighbouring ones (trinity do a stats night course, but it’s spendy for a grad student to take up).

  3. foleyg says:

    Triona, Me too, I’m very easily distracted. In fact, I think it’s interesting that the success of TED.com is mainly due to the fact that the talks are short – any longer and even the most inspirational lecturer loses his or her audience. Personally, I find it very hard to pay attention unless there is something at stake and that’s why I did a couple of Open University modules a few years ago. They’re mad expensive though

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