Some random thoughts on MOOCs

Over the last few years we have seen Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) go from few in number to now there are a good number of them out there, with the most recent announcement of  Futurelearn promising even more.

What is a MOOC though?  What makes it different to self-directed learning using openly accessible distributed materials and social networks?

I took (or is it took part in) a MOOC recently, and found it an interesting experience. The delivery of the course included videos lectures with transcripts & slides,  a selection of auto-mated quizzes and peer assessment assignments. There also was a forum which had a lot of traffic. There was over 70,000 students taking the course and whilst that has benefits, it has challenges too.

So back to my general thoughts, if we break down the structure of a MOOC, the parts which it delivers – what is so different to using materials elsewhere?


Content is everywhere online and quite accessible too in many formats. Search engines make it quite easy to find information on a specific topic especially once you start doing more advanced searches.

There are a very large number (and increasing number) of educational resources available openly online. These can be found everywhere be it on blogs, video repositories like YouTube, presentation repositories like SlideShare, learning object and resource repositories like the NDLR and JORUM – these are the resource made available deliberately as open content.

This is of course in addition to content available on business driven websites such as media outlets and so on. Some of this is behind paid premium-memberships but there is a lot of it openly accessible.

There is also a lot of information available online in the Open Access published research repositories too. This can be found either throughs search engines like Google, or through portals like or directly on the institutions own open access repository like

And of course there is Wikipedia too. There is not enough space on blog to elaborate there, so shall leave that be!

In the MOOC that I took there was one thing that I loved. I could download all the videos so that I could load them, the slides and the transcripts into my IPAD for watching while travelling. This was by far the biggest thing I learnt from the process, making the content mobile was just so useful.


What about discussions with people around the same topic? Access to communities of practice or even just collections of users around set topics is never easier online.  Be it following a hashtag on twitter and perhaps taking part in the regular subject specific Twitter chats; or joining groups in Google, LinkedIN, Facebook or the plethora of other social networking sites, there is an ever increasing openly accessible number of special interest groups where forums, chats, mailing lists all feature for debate and information sharing. If you include Google Hangouts, Skype and Instant messaging systems in this area and the access is increased even more.

Within a MOOC, discussions with that huge volume of people can become prolific and hard to follow with a number of threads on the same topic, maybe the same answers too. This however can be controlled and mitigated somewhat with focused questions perhaps so can depend on the platform chosen.

Peer Review

There are so many avenues now for people to get feedback on their work, be it presentations, reports and writing. It could be comments on their blog posts, tweets, replies on discussion forums of groups and other blog posts taking the topic and linking back to the original to continue a discussion on it or provide a more comprehensive feedback or thoughts about the topic. Sometimes I have seen comments on blogs which provided the same level of value to the reader as the blog post itself.

However, within a structured MOOC, crowd sourcing structured peer review is a challenge – it seems to expect that everyone taking part has the skillset to give feedback, and to properly assess someone elses contribution. Is that a big assumption?


What about access to quizzes that can be easily taken on the specified subject? I guess online, this may be a bigger challenge than content, discussion or peer review. So it this where the MOOC (if it uses a quiz) has something beyond openly accessible distributed learning?

I found the quizzes in the MOOC that I completed to be a good recap tool for the videos, the questions were well designed and caught me out a few times. But that was a good thing I guess!


This is one area a structured MOOC has that self-directed learning lacks a “Proof” of completion. It is easy to say you have read up on an area, but having a piece of paper (digital or not) that says you completed a MOOC on it – is something isnt it?

Of course anyone could do a MOOC using any name (I was able to change my name on the MOOC system after completion to print my certificate of completion – which is a good thing as I had not put my full name into the account). So is this certificate of completion going to be worth something sometime? What about proof of who did it?

Before I finish, a few questions popped into my mind:

Did I learn anything on the MOOC?

Yes absolutely. The personality of the lecturer made it easier to grasp, and the pace was quite good.

Would I invest the same amount of time to do another one?

Depending on the topic yes – but I would look for comments of others who previously did it and would also consider the platform and structure more than I did the first time. The platform is actually more important than I first imagined for a MOOC, and a good navigation is essential. Also the ability to “offline” the content will be a key thing in considering another one.

Was it any more learning on the topic than I would have had if I read some suitable blogs, watched existing videos on Youtube/Vimeo, followed suitable tweet chats?

Not sure. I would have had to put together my own structure of what to look up, my own curriculum on the topic, but in the end I was looking at these as well as the course material anyhow.

This entry was posted in Odd Bits and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Some random thoughts on MOOCs

  1. Guido Gautsch says:

    Hi Gavin,

    We’re having a similar discussion on the Moodle4MOOC G+ community. How would you rate Moodle as a platform for a MOOC?

    • ghenrick says:

      I think Moodle can handle a MOOC, has the features required, probably more than required.

      I believe that it is down to choosing what it is to be, course design, and servers under it to power it.

  2. “However, within a structured MOOC, crowd sourcing structured peer review is a challenge – it seems to expect that everyone taking part has the skillset to give feedback, and to properly assess someone elses contribution. Is that a big assumption?”

    I managed to get to chat with Daphne koeller of Coursera on here recent visit to Dublin and she told me that they train the students on how to carry out peer review and also use that activity to calibrate each student’s ability to peer review and use this calibration to modify grades in peer review. This is a good start, but I think that you need a continuous calibration of ability to allow for improvement during the course. I have an algorithm put together for this and am looking for a Moodle programmer to see if we can extend the workshop module to do this.

    • ghenrick says:

      Sounds interesting, have you put the specification or requirement out for feedback in the Moodle forums?

  3. Pingback: More thoughts on MOOCs | Some Random Thoughts

  4. Might there be a forum for attendees of the Dublin MoodleMoot that I might get the word out on and possibly meet some programmers there. Perhaps i should have signed up for the Hackathon but I don’t do any programmers these days. If I had a spec for it, is this the sort of thing people might be interested in at the hackathon?

    • ghenrick says:

      Actually, you need to chat to Mark G about an initiative to be launched at the Moot where this will fit right in.

Comments are closed.