As part of my studies this week I was asked to review and compare two different types of MOOC. Specifically I needed to compare DS106 from the University of Mary Washington to a MOOC on either FutureLearn or Coursera. I was already registered on FutureLearn but had never taken a MOOC so that seemed like the logical place to start. I looked brief at DS106 and discovered it was about digital storytelling so decided to find a digitally-focused course in FutureLearn to compare it with. I chose 'Digital Skills: Social Media' and started to work through this course.
Contrived but comfy
The FutureLearn offering was just as I would have expected. Each page had a clean layout with learning outcomes at the start of key sections and a combination of videos and structured content with links to other materials not designed for teaching but related to the topic on each page. At the bottom of each page was a lovely button I could click to show I had read the material and when I did this, the progress bar edged across the top of the screen reassuringly showing me my progress. I could also make comments on each page if I wished and having viewed them people were certainly commenting but comments tended to be quite brief. About halfway through the week one material was a moodle quiz-style assessment, which I had to gain over 70% on if I wanted to the certificate of completion (aced it by the way!). Everything in the course was clear and I am confident I learnt something. But it felt a little bit instruction manual-like and slightly detached from the real world. I think if I wanted I could make it more relevant by dipping in and out as set up my own social media activities or drafted a plan to use social media for my business. Effectively, I had to bring the authenticity to the table myself. This is not necessarily a problem because in many cases, learners pick up MOOCs or similar activities in order to gain some 'just in time' learning but if this is not the case, I feel it can lead to a lack of high level participation and, if we want to use metaphors, a more acquisition-based approach. This was definitely an xMOOC so a case of taking standard pedagogy and putting it online.
Authentic and Scary
I then returned to DS106 and started to look around. Unlike FutureLearn I did not formally register for this but, even without doing so I was able to see quite a lot of structure and assessment options. The first thing to note was that I could not find any Learning Outcomes but there was two versions of the guide, a long version and a quick start guide. In both cases, there was a list of technologies that you needed to have an account with to participate fully including Flickr, Twitter and Gravatar as well as a gmail account. This is immediately very different to FutureLearn where there is no requirement for additional technologies or accounts. It gives a sense of creating more work to get started but at the same time it creates a real-world experience and something you can keep after the course. However, there are other, more exciting features of this MOOC that stand in direct contrast to FutureLearn. Firstly, there is no progress bar and in fact no pre-determined structure at all. Instead learners can create their own pathway. They can also create their own assignments and create really is the right word because these are highly creative activities such as creating an audio track for a story in a particular character. Now, of course, the topic of this course is by definition creative so you can expect some more imaginative activities but this should not detract from the authenticity in this experience. You become part of a community, creating and sharing your digital skills. So why the scary part then? Well this is very much out of my learning comfort zone and I found it quite petrifying - even the website was busy and daunting. Perhaps if I had some digital skills I would be happy to carve out my own pathway but as a complete novice, this cMOOC approach where key activities are co-constructed was overwhelming and scary to me. It is so different from traditional face to face teaching that I almost cannot tell that I am meant to be learning. I do, however, see that I could easily come to feel part of the online community.
A tale of two learners (or at two different times):
The final point I made above makes me believe that both types of MOOC have great value but perhaps for different stages of learners. Just as in my face to face teaching I offer a more structured, instructor -led approach to my first years and a more student-led approach to my third years, the same can be helpful in online learning. FutureLearn seems to offer a safe platform for learners to start their online learning journey. It gives guidance, structure and clarity throughout. Participation can be minimal or limited to invited comments - there is less pressure on the learner. By contrast DS106 offers an authentic space for more confident, experienced learners. This confidence and experience could be in the topic or in learning i.e. it could suit experience online learners with no digital skills or inexperienced online learners with good digital skills.
Now when I talk about it suiting some and not others, implicit in that is the assumption that there is outcome I can measure this against. To be clear I am not assuming the outcome is completion of all activities or passing the quizzes or assessments with a certain grade. Instead I am thinking about whether the learner feels they have a) learnt something and b) learnt enough to justify (in however they wish - time, effort etc) the cost of the activity.
Variety is the spice of learning:
This exercise has reminded me that within our learning variety is a good thing. I think this because it staves off boredom and gives us a challenge from time to time. We need some level of challenge to learn effectively and that is not always in how we are taught or learn it can sometimes be in what we are learning but these two MOOCs certainly show that challenge can be given in the how we learn. The beauty of variety, of course, is that sometimes it is nice to have something predictable and comfy to work with, even if we are at the point where we could manage a challenge of sorts.