Reflections of a mooc unvirgin

I recently completed my first mooc, and I will soon receive the certificate to prove it.

Many people don’t think a certificate of completion means much, but this one will mean a lot to me. I put substantial time and energy into this course, so it will be satisfying to have something tangible to recognise it.

Before I signed up, I had decided to do a mooc because I was blogging about them but had never experienced one for myself. I considered doing Georgia Tech’s Fundamentals of Online Education via Coursera, but I wasn’t attracted to the introductory angle of the content. As it turned out, the course crashed under the weight of its own popularity, so I dodged a bullet there.

I also considered the independent(?) Educational Technology and Media mooc, but I was put off by its heavy connectivist approach. Not per se, mind you, but I was looking for more direction.

Eventually I settled on The University of Edinburgh’s E-learning and Digital Cultures mooc (EDCMOOC) because it targeted practising e-learning professionals who “want to deepen their understanding of what it means to teach and learn in the digital age”, not to mention the fact I was fascinated by its coverage of popular culture.

So my first learning – before I even began – was that all moocs are different. You can’t tar them with the one brush.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed the EDCMOOC. In my opinion, it had a lot going for it. Having said that, however, every course has its pro’s and cons, and this one was no exception…

A bowl of cherries.


  • The mooc was well prepared. The pre-information on the Coursera site was useful, the promotional video was informative, and both were reinforced by a welcome email upon registration.
  • The virtual classroom environment was well structured. Not only were the content streams logically sequenced and accessible in advance, but the administrative aspects of the course were outlined under a dedicated “what, where, how and when” page. An announcement board kept us up to date, the discussion forums were easy to find, and the final assessment was explained clearly from Day 1.
  • The pedagogical approach of the course combined elements of both instructivism and constructivism. Each topic included an introduction covering the central concepts, plus a resources page comprising several video clips (not of lectures, but of creative works) and readings. I appreciated the readings being classified as “Core” or “Advanced”, as this allowed me to focus my energies on the ones that mattered, while getting around to the others if I had the time and inclination.
  • The duration of each topic was one week. This was enough time to get the work done, but not enough time to tempt you to sit on your laurels. I kept up to speed for the first 3 weeks, but I let the fourth week slip when real life got in the way. Thankfully the resources remained accessible, which allowed me to catch up afterwards.
  • The duration of the whole course was 5 weeks, which again I found to be just right. After the novelty of the first couple of weeks wears off, real life competes hard for your attention. In all honesty, I think I would have dropped out if it were any longer.
  • The course was supported by social media groups across several platforms, including Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. While I initially found this frustrating (having to bounce between them in case I missed out on anything), I now agree in hindsight that multiple platforms are a good idea – on the proviso that the Coursera-hosted forum remains the plenary. It makes no sense to me to force people onto one arbitrary platform which they otherwise would not use, and it was convenient to self-organise the 40,000 students into more manageable sub-groups.
  • Through the discussions in the course, participation in the social media groups, and comments on my blog posts, I connected with some incredibly smart people from all over the world. These connections will enrich my learning experience well after the course has ended.
  • Assessment for the course was crowd-sourced. Each participant was charged with peer assessing the digital artefacts of at least three fellow participants – and this was enshrined as a requirement for your own completion. The final score was an average of the peer scores.
  • I used ThingLink for my digital artefact, which I had intended to try since I first heard about it over a year ago. This mooc gave me the nudge I needed. Incidental learning at its finest!
  • The proof of the pudding is in its eating, and at the end of the course I can unequivocally say I learned plenty. Some of the learnings were implicit thoughts that were made explicit, while others were novel ideas to which I would otherwise have remained ignorant. I blogged about my learnings along the way, being mindful to draw out the practical applications of the somewhat academic concepts.



  • With 42,000 participants, it was inevitable that the discussion forum would be swamped. I witnessed many participants talking at their fellow students rather than with them, and some discussion threads ran on for pages and pages. Of course, this became less of a problem over time as huge numbers of participants dropped out, leaving the keen beans to carry on the conversation.
  • During Week 1 in particular, the discussion forum and social media groups were inundated with the likes of “Hi, I’m from Sao Paulo” and “Howdy from Texas”. While I’m a fan of social mores, I don’t specifically care where the 27,347th participant is from.
  • Hand-in-hand with the “happy greeter” was the “lost soul”. A lot of participants expressed anxiety at being overwhelmed by the mooc – which I found surprising. Not only were the weekly instructions quite clear, but the target audience was e-learning professionals who are, presumably, seasoned adult learners.
  • A bugbear of mine in any discussion forum is the “pretender” – ie someone who posts lofty statements with big words, yet devoid of any substance. There was no shortage of them in this mooc.
  • At the other end of the extreme, other participants’ contributions were woefully inadequate. In one thread, for example, the discussion descended into a list of sci-fi movies; no explanation as to how they were pertinent to the conversation, but oh what a list!
  • Another problem that popped up was the “parasite” – ie someone who signs up to a mooc just so they can spam the discussions with links to their own irrelevant content. Vomit.
  • As far as the course content is concerned, I felt the focus on pop culture was perhaps too strong. While the instructors tended to end each topic with a question about its implications for e-learning, that was rarely followed up in the discussions. In my opinion, the participants roasted the same old chestnuts (such as the spectre of big brother and the inequity of digital access in the third world) instead of synthesising connections to the practice of education in their own world.

Network Analysis of EDCMOOC Facebook group.

Suggestions for improvement

To be fair, the cons that I have listed above are not unique to the EDCMOOC, nor to online learning in general. I remember similar problems from my uni days on campus.

Nonetheless, they inform my following suggestions for improvement…

  • Week 1 should be set aside as a social week to allow the happy greeters to get their social proclivities out of their systems. It may be tempting to set aside a pre-week for this purpose, but the truth is it will bleed into Week 1 anyway.
  • The instructors need to be much more active in the discussions. I recommend they seed each week with a pinned discussion thread, which marks the official line of enquiry and discourages multiple (and confusing) threads emerging about the same concepts.
  • More importantly, the instructors should actively prompt, prod, guide and challenge the participants to engage in critical analysis. Explication of the implications for e-learning must be the outcome.
  • A moderator should delete the spam and ban the spammers.
  • A support page and discussion thread should be dedicated to helping the lost souls, so that they don’t pollute the rest of the course with their problems.

A pair of cherries

All in all, I am glad to report my first mooc experience was a positive one.

I won’t rush out to do another one in a hurry, but that’s simply because I know how demanding they are.

But one thing’s for sure, I will do another one at some stage. I look forward to it!

22 thoughts on “Reflections of a mooc unvirgin

  1. Thanks Ryan – very useful and informative, and perhaps even motivating (ie: for me to dig a bit deeper and attempt a MOOC myself, instead of just reading all the current propaganda!) Jude

  2. Congrats, Ryan, sounds like a success!

    “To be fair, the cons that I have listed above are not unique to the EDCMOOC, nor to online learning in general. I remember similar problems from my uni days on campus.”

    That sums it up really. I’m not sure if your suggestions would change this as I’m pretty sure all your cons would still happen, in any setting, except maybe to a lesser extent.

    I’m currently doing two music moocs with Coursera (music production and song writing), both via Berklee the quality of the instructions and assignments is astonishing.

    Another thing I’m doing right now is a photography course through Skillshare. It’s a mini-MOOC that you generally pay for (~$20) and is instructor-led. No quizzes and the focus is on short courses that teach specific slills through projects. I really like the concept and it’s a nice alternative to the massiveness of the MOOC, plus I haven’t experienced any of the gripes you mentioned.


  3. Thanks Guido.

    Let me know when you produce your first song :0)

    I’ve heard good things about Skillshare. I’ll give them a go…


  4. Thanks Ryan for sharing your journey through this EDMOOC. I have been following posts on MOOCs . There are critics and supporters and I was on the lookout for actual case studies- that is to hear it from someone who has gone through it. Your post gives such a balanced view that i think it is going to motivate a number of learners.Don’t forget to update when you take your next MOOC.

  5. I was promoting MOOCs (because they are excitingly emerging right now) in general and #edcmooc in particular to a group of first year BA (Education Studies) students yesterday. They are going to be educators in a digital world – and that is the joy of our MOOC – it sets that thought-bot up. I do feel that the dystopia/utopia/big brother lens is a useful one not only to seed our thinking about e-learning – but to seed our thinking about education per se… I like your critique – though perhaps you are a bit harsh on the ‘parasites’ – in a class of 40,000+ we can afford a few non-contributors ;-)

  6. Great summary, Ryan. I agree with much of what you reported here in your blog. Another “pro” I thought #EDCMOOC offered was a series of preparatory emails itemizing the web applications we should become familiar with BEFORE the class actually began. I found those weeks of prep time to be very valuable and helped prevent me from being one of the lost souls you mentioned. These advance emails were just another example of how well organized both the course and instructors were. EDCMOOC was my first MOOC and turned out to be an excellent experience.

  7. @ Sandra Sinfield – Cheers fellow EDCMOOCer!

    It’s an excellent idea to expose the ed students to the themes of this mooc. It’s interesting how those students are doing a BA, wheres the students from Edinburgh were doing an MSc, because I think the nature of the mooc is more arts than science.

    Either way, I agree with you that the themes give us a different lens through which to view education. This was certainly the case for myself.

  8. @ MP Cottengim – Hello fellow mooc unvirgin ;0)

    Excellent point you raise, MP. A lot of people despise email, but I found the ones sent by the mooc coordinators before, during and after the course to be very helpful.

    Love it or hate it, everyone reads their email!

  9. Thoroughly enjoyed your observations; they mirror many of the positive experiences I’ve had in the Educational Technology & Media MOOC (#etmooc), which has left me with a deep appreciation of what massive open online courses can offer when they are well designed and well facilitated. Sounds as if the two courses would work well as a paired set; thanks for doing so much to draw attention to what you experienced.

  10. Thanks Paul, I’m glad to hear the etmooc was worthwhile. The two courses working as a paired set is a great idea.

  11. Appreciated your post, Ryan. I had a similar MOOC adventure (Coursera: Economics of Obesity), and your summary helped me clarify some of my thoughts about the experience. I subsequently enrolled in the Spanish MOOC, but the 12-week commitment was too much for my unpredictable schedule.

  12. Thank you Ryan for yor reflections. I am doing H817open at the moment and experiencing the same with the online discussions. I think it is the fact that facilitators are taking a pick and mix attitude to MOOC pedagogies. Instructional content with connectivist discussion forums ( I.e letvthecparticipants get on with it) and as you say participants talking at each other and some of the posts are superfluous and trivial. I agree that MOO c discussions benefit from skilfull and constructivist facilitation.


  13. So glad to see this review – EDC was my 2nd MOOC through Coursera and I did not enjoy it as much as the first. While I admired the creative use of multiple platforms, the course focus was way too theoretical (utopias/dystopias/what does it mean to be human?). I was hoping for more of a practical elearning experience, and ended up being more spectator than participant. The discussion forums/participant threads were the least useful part — for all the reasons you mention. Agree the instructors should take firmer control over discussion threads so they are not so … random. Tough to keep the herd from wandering. Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful and thorough exploration of the course.

  14. @ Kevin Woodward – Cheers Kevin!

    @ Anonymous – Thanks for shoring up my POV, Anonymous. While the instructors appear to have taken on participant feedback about their teaching approach, they oddly refer to it as the need to be more “in your face” –

    To me, it’s not really about that; instead, it’s about providing more guidance, real-world examples, etc to maintain the link to daily practice.

  15. Cheers Glenn, and thanks for sharing that article. I agree with its 3 takeaways.

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