Combining traditional university courses with massive open online courses.

Last year I went back to school to upgrade my digital media skill set, but not everything I learned was in the classroom. Like many people, I discovered massively open online courses, or MOOCs – which are Internet-based courses offered (often) for free. I had started with coding – learning HTML5, CSS3 and Javascript through Codecademy  – and then moved onto other topics, such as Gamification and Social Network Analysis at Coursera.

Many people are finding these courses interesting – and challenging, and after taking both ‘traditional’ classes and MOOCs, I’ve come away with some observations:

  1. Traditional university classrooms are changing. The typical class is a lecture, and it’s only been fairly recently that laptops have made their way into the classroom. A student would spend their time after class sourcing materials in the library when they had a paper to write. Now, a number of schools are wanting to ban/limit laptops and Internet in the classroom. Having greater access to educational articles online, or a laptop in class allows students to verify information quickly, and create a discussion about a topic, rather than just absorb information. Here are some articles arguing for laptops and against.
  2. Watching videos for MOOCs still requires discipline and focus. If it’s a subject that you’re not familiar with you need to pay attention. Not all MOOCs are created equal either. Some have better video/audio quality, and some professors are downright awkward in front of the camera. There is still a requirement to do assignments and take tests, and while some argue that it’s easier to cheat, there are means to mitigate this.
  3. Credentials. Getting a degree or diploma has long been regarded as key to understanding a field of study, however often by the time you’ve graduated, the content you’ve learned is out of date. Some things are easier to be taught outside of the classroom and certainly many companies prefer real world experience, rather than a university degree.
  4. Tandem learning. By taking Gamification and Social Network Analysis at the same time as Digital Skills and Innovation for the Global Economy (EID100), my level of understanding opened up just that much more. Both topics were touched on in class – and having a better understanding of each meant I could appreciate the lecture that much more. I’m in no way advocating a full course load plus MOOCs – there needs to be prioritization.
  5. Extreme circumstances/distance learning. Not everyone is able to attend classes, commit to 12-14 weeks for one course, or even afford to go to class. By allowing segments of courses to be posted online for free, students can make better decisions about taking the full course, or seeing where that little bit of knowledge could take them. In some cases – it’s nowhere, but that’s true for many people who spend 3 or 4 years pursuing a degree and end up in a completely different field.

Education in the digital world is undergoing change, and there are exciting opportunities for those that want to embrace it. As universities face ongoing education design challenges, they can no longer ignore the apparent success of MOOCs and other online models. A healthy mixture of both may be just what’s required – or adapting to a completely different educational model.

Have you participated in a MOOC? What was your impression – was it a good learning experience, or did you abandon it mid-way through.

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