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Reflecting on MOOCs - Experiences of a (sort of) first-timer

Reflecting on MOOCs - Experiences of a (sort of) first-timer

So I have a bit of a confession to make... I have never actually completed a MOOC despite signing up for a number of them since they first creeped onto my radar back in 2012 or so.

I could attribute this to an aspect of my personality which my other-half often refers to as the 'Branagh Grand Scheme', where I like to make a lot of grand plans and then realise that they're probably not all that achievable on top of a PhD and numerous other life commitments (including training (raising?) a 4 month-old puppy!).

But I was wondering if there's something else to blame for my failure to ever complete a MOOC. Is there something about them that doesn't quite work for me?

These Massive Open Online Courses were meant to signal the beginning of the end for traditional teaching in Higher Education. But it was soon found that they were largely attended by people who already had traditional degrees and were marked by exceptionally high drop-out, or non-completion, rates.

This 'The Conversation' piece on MOOCs by Lisa Harris and Manuel León Urrutia from the University of Southhampton appeared on my twitter timeline on the 25th of August and got me thinking about the nature of MOOCs and why they might work for some people and not others. They argue that MOOCs are maturing into useful tools to complement traditional Higher Education teaching.

My first ever experience of a MOOC was, perhaps ironically, the University of Edinburgh's E-Learning and Digital Cultures course on Coursera. I loved the concept of the course and at the time was working for a publishing company specialising in digital resources for school children. It seemed like the ideal course for me, and yet, I am disappointed to say, I never managed to complete it!

It had nothing to do with the assignments or course content - both of which were interesting and engaging. There was just something that struck me as deeply impersonal about the whole MOOC experience.

A facebook group was set up for the course and I think those who actively participated in this got a great deal out of the conversations on there. But I think I felt a little shy about really throwing myself into a conversation with hundreds of other students - a bit like putting your hand up in an undergraduate lecture. There was something very public about it all, and had I participated I think I would have felt a bit exposed!

Perhaps the fact that I fall into that largest MOOC demographic of someone who already has a high level of education makes me more likely not to complete it. After all I've spent the majority of my life in traditional education and have become accustomed to a certain level of personal guidance and feedback in my learning experiences. I don't expect someone to be breathing down my neck and checking up on me but I do expect someone to take an interest in my work and offer me valued feedback. And that's where the MOOC experience falls down for me, because no matter how well a course has been designed, one lecturer simply cannot interact personally with hundreds and thousands of students.

And so I shelved MOOCs for a while but have recently started to engage again. Spotting the University of Sheffield's 'Literature of the English Country House' MOOC on FutureLearn a few months ago, I promptly signed up. I have dipped in and out of the course material, reading and blog posts which arose from the course but didn't really participate as the course was in progress. Nonetheless, I still found it a really useful and educational experience. I hope to post something soon on my experiences of this particular MOOC.

And perhaps that's where the benefits of MOOCs lie for me, because as someone who is spoiled with regular supervisor meetings, research seminars and conferences I already get to participate in lots of academic and intellectual discussions on a day-to-day basis. So the role of MOOCs in my personal and professional life is more of a 'top-up' on knowledge and skills and as a way of answering intellectual curiosity about topics tangental to, but not vital for, my PhD work.

I think my next venture into MOOCs will be a totally different experience, however. The new course: 'How to Survive your PhD' from ThesisWhisperer which launches today promises to deal with the emotional aspects of the PhD. Something which I know by speaking to other PhD students is a major challenge for a lot of people. Dealing with isolation, motivation and 'imposter syndrome' can be crippling and really affect the progress of your thesis.

A couple of hours after its launch, the MOOC hashtag #survivephd15 is trending in Australia (where the course is based) and has participants from 144 different countries. I think this just highlights how important this type of training is for PhD students and how in-demand these courses are.

I'll let you know how I get on with my latest attempt at a MOOC as I complete (or don't!) the course! Wish me luck!

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