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October 14, 2012 / carlispina

My First MOOC

MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, are currently a powerful force, and a topic of much debate, in the field of higher education. They have created much excitement and skepticism in the short time since they burst on the scene, with many services emerging that offer variations on the MOOC concept, including Coursera, Udacity, edX and even the more experimental Mechanical MOOC.

Based on all of the buzz, I decided to try one out. The classes offered as MOOCs vary widely from literature classes to math classes to computer programming classes. But, I finally settled on Coursera’s Gamification course based on the fact that I am interested in the topic and had already read enough on the subject that I felt as though I would be able to evaluate the class better  than if I knew nothing about the topic. The course, taught by Professor Kevin Werbach of University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, was 6 weeks long and was taught through a series of videos, quizzes and writing assignments. Students who wanted to receive a certificate of completion were expected to complete all assignments with an average score of at least 70 percent. Each week, the lectures were broken up into two topics with several short videos on each topic. The length of the videos varied, but most were around 6 to 15 minutes in length, which created built-in breaks and also made it easy to fit videos into even short breaks in the day. Many videos had mini-quizzes embedded within them to help students to gauge whether they were understanding the lectures. Most weeks, students were expected to complete multiple choice homework quizzes after completing the week’s videos, though students were allowed multiple attempts on each quiz if necessary. In addition to these quizzes, the class also required students to complete three written assignments. While the multiple choice quizzes were automatically and instantaneously graded, the written assignments were graded by peers in the class to allow the course to accommodate thousands of students. This means that a part of each written assignment was also grading several other students’ assignments and failure to do so precluded students from receiving a certificate of completion for the course. In addition to these required elements, the course also offered suggested readings, a discussion forum and a course wiki to ensure that students were getting a broad exposure to gamification and to the ideas of their classmates.

Having completed the course, I must say that I was pleasantly surprised overall. While the degree to which MOOCs work will undoubtedly vary from course to course (as is true of all classes), the videos for this class were very engaging and professionally done. I felt that the course did a good job of presenting the advantages and potential problems associated with gamification in a way that students would find clear and concise. Each video allowed students to slow down or speed up the video and included closed captioning, often in multiple languages, making the course more accessible to a wide range of students. The course required several hours of work each week, but was reasonable and fit within the description that was provided at the start of the course.

My only reservation about the class was the grading of the written assignment, which was a problem I had been warned about by other MOOC participants before I even started the course. While it is unclear how student assignments could be graded by teaching staff given the large size of most MOOCs, the fact that written assignments were graded by randomly selected peers meant that the grades were very unpredictable and often did not provide useful feedback or suggestions for improvement. The answers also varied widely between students, in part due to the varying languages of the students who could participate from all over the world. While it will probably never be possible to smooth out all of the issues related to peer grading, I felt that the grading could be improved by having participants select their preferred language at the start of the course and then allowing students to prepare their written assignments in their preferred language. Given that grading is done by other students, it seems as though it might be possible to match students with other students who use the same language rather than asking all students to prepare and grade answers in English even if this is not their native language.

While the grading was a drawback of my Coursera experience, overall, I really enjoyed my first MOOC. Especially given that students do not have to pay to participate in these courses, I think they are well worth consideration. I would definitely recommend checking out available MOOCs if you are interested in learning a new subject!

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