Source: Science Photo Library
In January, the University of Edinburgh became the first UK university to offer massive open online courses on one of the big US Mooc platforms, Coursera.
Its six courses - covering artificial intelligence, astrobiology, critical thinking, e-learning and digital cultures, philosophy, and equine nutrition - attracted 308,000 students, with Introduction to Philosophy the most popular, drawing almost 100,000 participants.
The programmes, which ran over five weeks, had an estimated average completion rate of about 12 per cent, while early figures suggest that each Mooc cost about £30,000 from development to delivery.
But what did instructors and students think?
Siân Bayne, a senior lecturer, and Jeremy Knox, a PhD student, both in the University of Edinburgh’s School of Education, were instructors on the university’s E-learning and Digital Cultures Mooc.
From August 2012 until the course went live in January, Knox estimates he was spending about eight hours a week on Mooc-related activity. During the five weeks of the course itself, this figure doubled, he says.
“Populating the platform itself was quite time-consuming, but we thought that once it was up and running, it would kind of run itself. That’s the impression we got from Coursera - just wind it up and watch it go. However, we found that we were spending a lot of time monitoring the course while it was going.”
In contrast to the set-up of many programmes offered via Coursera, the developers of Edinburgh’s e-learning course opted against having the content driven by audiovisual footage of lectures delivered to camera, choosing instead to curate open-source online content, including YouTube footage and academic papers.
The decision proved unpopular with some students, Knox says, as they had been expecting to see professors imparting knowledge as they would in a lecture theatre.
“Lots of people describe ‘face to face’ as a gold standard, but we have tried to disregard that idea. People come with expectations…If I was approaching the Mooc again, I would try to be very clear up front about what the course is and what it isn’t.”
Bayne says that a lack of “talking heads” might have made some participants feel that there was “no ‘professor’ present in the course” - a problem exacerbated by the vast number of students per instructor.
“As a team, we were putting a lot of work into forums, the Twitter stream and so on. But when the teacher-to-student ratio is 1:8,000, any interventions you make are going to be tiny, tiny contributions to the whole, however hard you work. I think we might need to come up with some alternative strategies for making our presence felt next time.”
Community spirit develops
However, despite some criticisms, groups of engaged students did start to emerge, making use of the course’s interactive forums and other social media channels to form virtual study communities.
“There was a very engaged group that began forming a community before the course even started,” Knox explains. “They were using social media to meet each other, and were very happy with the idea of self-directing their study. They got it.”
Bayne says she was “astounded” by the number of people discussing the Mooc online. Its Facebook group attracted more than 4,500 members, with a further 2,000 on Google+.
On Twitter, about 700 tweets used the course’s #edcmooc hashtag every day, with numbers rising to 1,500 on occasion. In addition, nearly 1,000 blogs were started by participating students. “The sheer volume and energy of it was really exciting,” she says.
In total, some 42,000 students enrolled on the five-week course, with about 17,000 logging in at least once in that period. The number of students engaging dropped each week, and Knox estimates that some 2,000 students completed the final assignment.
However, he is not disheartened by the figures. “In traditional education there’s a perception that you have to see it through to assessment. [But with a Mooc] you don’t necessarily have to begin and end at the same time as everyone else. There are other ways to get value from courses,” he says.
Bayne agrees. “With this kind of scale there is absolutely no way you can please everyone, so I think you just have to offer a Mooc that you are happy with in terms of content and design, have a clear sense of what you’re trying to achieve with it, and stick to your guns,” she says. “We did that, and enough people completed it and enjoyed it to have made it an absolutely worthwhile adventure.”
Results may vary
Sheila MacNeill, Jo Stroud, Shazia Arif and Imogen Bertin were among the 42,000 students who signed up to the course.
All of them are involved in higher education to some extent, which is unsurprising because the course was aimed at learning technologists and those with an interest in digital education.
Of the four, only MacNeill saw the course through to its conclusion, although that does not mean that the others took nothing from the experience.
Stroud, a learning technologist at the London School of Economics’ Centre for Learning Technology, was typical of many.
“I participated up to week four [of five], but didn’t interact much with other course participants beyond week two,” she notes, citing competing deadlines at work as one reason why her participation tailed off.
“Like many others have pointed out, the numbers of people engaged with the course’s discussion boards made the experience rather overwhelming,” she says, adding that she would have liked students to have been split into groups of about 100 before the course started.
However, she says she found the themes for each teaching week “engaging”, and the accompanying resources “thought-provoking and stimulating”.
Arif, subject liaison librarian for engineering and design at Brunel University Library, also found mixed blessings in the size of the student cohort.
Although she enjoyed “the feeling of being part of a huge movement - like a club, attending a concert or a demo - a sense of belonging”, she observes that it was difficult to engage with this group when things were not progressing as expected.
“The worst thing was getting behind and being unable to catch up. There was no forum on which to discuss this, and I was not comfortable sharing with strangers,” she says.
Completion isn’t everything
Less impressed overall was Bertin, who used to lecture in social media skills and digital marketing at University College Cork and now works for a technology company.
She wrote several critical blogs about her Mooc experience.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, she says the course did at least prevent her from enrolling on the course at a cost.
“Great project, all kudos to Edinburgh for trying it, but the overall effect for me was knowing that I don’t want to do an e-learning course they run that I had previously been interested in taking.”
For MacNeill, assistant director of the Centre for Educational Technology and Interoperability Standards at higher education IT consortium Jisc, the course had ups and downs, but it reinforced her belief that Moocs should not be judged on completion rates alone.
“A big part of it is realising you don’t have to do everything - you can engage at your own pace,” MacNeill says.
“But for a lot of learners who come from a traditional educational background and who work in education, I think that they put themselves under great pressure to do everything and do it really well. But dropping out isn’t a huge issue - we really need different metrics to measure success.”