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The disruptive dust around MOOCs has settled a bit now and their uses and rewards are becoming clearer. Why might you undertake one and how can you make your MOOC behave? Be advised that if you do start one you will learn not just the topic itself but much about learning in general and a lot about yourself. In the last year I have undertaken about 20 MOOCs. Obsessive, perhaps, but this is what I have learnt. Treat them with firmness and make them work for you and your own objectives. Here are my tips for controlling the MOOC experience:

1 Know why you are doing it

You may be a student wanting extra information or a professional undertaking continuous professional development. You might just be signing up on a whim and think it’ll be a bit of fun. Indeed, you can work it like this. The fact that MOOCs are free and there is no penalty if you do not participate makes them a bit easy-come-easy-go. The majority of people who sign up only watch the videos and read the materials; only a proportion undertake the assignments. So if you are aware of what you want to get out of it you can operate the system to your own advantage. The key thing is to align your reward or pleasure level with the amount of work or input that you are prepared to put in. It is good to have a challenge, of course, but if that challenge grows out of all proportion to the level of attainment then something is wrong. Ask yourself is the workload worth what I am getting back from it?

2 Study the MOOC and know its level

At the sign-up stage most MOOCs have introductory texts and videos so you can gauge quite well what they’ll be putting in front of you.  The providers do not always state the level so you have to do some assessing. Coursera xMOOCs are usually about first year degree level and quite easy to follow. They set the syllabus out in familiar patterns and if you have done one of their MOOCs you will quickly catch on with others. The xMOOCs of the other big provider, EdX (MIT and Harvard), tend to be science or technology based but at first year level. However, the MOOCs of other providers are at different levels and some may be top year degree level or even MA level. MOOCs usually fall into the xMOOC category where the materials are taught by a professor or team, and the cMOOCs which are more like a library of materials and you make your own way through them, sometimes making study teams on the forums. The “c” stands for connectivist, meaning that you will strike up relationships and form networks that hopefully you will take away from the MOOCs with you (though I have found that does not happened that much). The cMOOCs are often one-offs and are usually at a higher level and for a professional audience.

3 Don’t be afraid to give it up

Leading on from that, do not feel guilty about giving up on a MOOC that is too much effort, is not what you thought it’d be or you simply don’t like. Many of them come round again in six months or so and you may be less busy with work or family next time round. It is your choice – the only commitment you have made is to yourself. Be happy to let go. I have abandoned MOOCs on the grounds that there was too much math, that it was boring and that I already knew far more than the MOOC’s level (I still got a certificate for the amount I did do on that last one). I also gave one up because I could not get into the platform…..

4 Try something new

On the other hand, because you do not have to pay or promise to attend that opens up the chance to undertake MOOCs on subjects that you might not otherwise have thought of. OK, sometimes this is a mistake, but usually you’ll be pleasantly surprised and learn things you never expected to. This is really like the old style Adult Education before the cuts because you get a chance to learn new topics but you can also chat about it in the forums if you want. In this way you can expand your professional knowledge or even branch out into something completely new to you.

5 Allow yourself to settle in

The hardest part of a MOOC is the start, especially when it is your first MOOC or you are using a new platform. Coursera seems to be the clearest, while other providers, like NovoEd (that set out Stanford’s fantastic MOOCs) are muddling. Be aware that many people will be struggling at the start, not just you. Take the opportunity to explore, check out the forums and generally play around. The first week is usually less work-heavy in order for people to find out the logistics of the site. It is also worth reading the course overview or syllabus because it might tell you about things you are expected to do later on which are not on view in the first few weeks. Many MOOCs drip feed you the materials on a weekly basis, though others might set it all out at once. If you are feeling anxious then letting off steam on the course Twitter hashtag, forum or Facebook page will get you much sympathy and advice!

6 Don’t expect a tutor relationship

Well, this of course is all one way – you see the tutor on the videos and you’ll get generic weekly emails too. But do not expect any direct contact with the tutor. The trade-off of the course being free is that you do not get any personalised feedback from the star of the show. The way you feel about the tutor will also have a big impact on your motivation for the course, just as if it were face-to-face. I have done two spectacularly great MOOCs that were made great by the tutor. Not only were the hard work, in-depth presentations, explanations and expectations of learners fuller than in some other MOOCs but the enthusiasm was infectious and the tutors were both very amusing too. I’m going to name check them because they deserve it – Matt McGarrity from the University of Washington’s Introduction to Public Speaking and William Kuskin from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Comic Books and Graphic Novels. I’d hate to lower an intelligent course to the level of “edutainment” but these two tutors understood the nature of their on-show platforms and made what they did more entertaining than television and far more intellectual. Other tutors struggle with speaking on video and that lessens the experience and makes it harder to follow.

7 Understand the trade-off in assessment

If you want personalised tutoring you’ll have to pay for it, I’m afraid. However, if you understand that assessment in MOOCs is a trade-off for your free course then you’ll be more forgiving. Instead most MOOCs rely on peer assessment. Hhhhmmmm! Yes, well, not always people’s favourite. The fact that there are many people to assess your work is good and usually real life peer assessment is not far off tutor assessment. However, while tutors have years of specific expertise and can recognise germs of potential, peers do not. They can be very tick-boxy. There is no room for deviation or out of the box thinking (unless that is a tick in a box). Peers often misunderstand. This means that after a while there is a temptation to produce a thing that you know they will accept not the creative thing you want to produce. As MOOCs are international peers often do not speak the same language as you, which is difficult if you are expecting refined feedback on an essay. Giving low or wrong grades can be forgiven, but the peer who says nothing at all cannot! The developments suggested are often weird and wonderful too.

8 Ask yourself about your learning

However, having said all that about peer assessment there is a further thought. Do you feel that your learning is just about “success” and good grades? Don’t you ever learn by mistakes too or just by going through processes? I’ve been in a MOOC lately which is simply for the staff team to gather research materials about video games and learning. There are no grades or feedback at all. A big debate is raging on the forum about “doing the tutors’ work for them” (which we all signed up very clearly to do) and how much we had learnt. Most of us feel that is was a great course and that we had learnt a lot. I certainly learnt a lot of encouraging academic material but also learnt something I did not expect to – about my family, the gaming habits of my son and our social hubs and nodes (!). My point is that grades do not equate to learning, so the most useful thing you can do in a MOOC is to look at your dodgy feedback and ask “Is it really so dodgy or am I in denial at being judged by my peers?” Anyway, you can always put your assignment on the forum and ask for more feedback – you’ll get loads. The tutor may be an expert but the sheer amount of learners in a MOOC means that you have a huge amount of knowledge, divergent thinking and plenty of ideas and enthusiasm across a wide range of international people. What more could you ask for?

9 Know what you expect from others

I talked to someone last week who refused to do MOOCs because of the forums and the daft comments you get there. While that can be true the forums should not be overlooked for the reasons I have mentioned above. Such a huge range of fellow learners will be bound to have some sages and mentors for you amongst them. Yes, there will be daft comments – but we are all human. I’m not so keen on groups, I often prefer to work alone and until recently my impression of MOOC group work was jaundiced. I was once invited to join a study group only to be told next day that I was being asked to leave again as they had found a much more interesting person to take my place. OK!! Nice! But recently I have been obliged to study in a group on a MOOC from Stanford about Practice Based Research in the Arts. For this group all of us have found that our learning has become richer and much more aware of others. The topic is often about emotion and affective learning and that would be hard to explore alone. And this weekend we have joined an assignment to share a meal and record it together, even though we are in six different places in the world from Tokyo to Seattle and everywhere in between. So don’t be judgmental or anxious about what others think of you. Try out the forums where huge amounts of learning are taking place. Don’t miss out. But if you are shy you can just lurk and see what others have to say. My own take away is that I realise I was much less tolerant than I thought and now I am trying to be more forgiving in an academic, research kind of way.

10 Make it work for you

Going back to the first question about why you want to do it – once you are in a MOOC or two make it work for you. Be efficient about it. I am a busy person so I need to feel my MOOCing time is worthwhile. I use the assignments to produce materials for my business, GDP. This means that the projects I produce might not meet the exact criteria of the MOOC’s assignment and my feedback might be a little off. But nevertheless, at the end of the project I have goods I can use for my business learners that are probably produced more efficiently than if I did them outside of the specific MOOC framework. This also means I stick to deadlines. If this item or project was not to be assessed I’d never finish it so quickly. I can also use the MOOC forums for getting on and off project feedback, finding out user needs and prototyping. I have had many now invaluable resources suggested to me by forum posts to me directly or ones I have read between other people. I also find that doing several MOOCs at a time also widens the bigger picture. Of course, most of my MOOCs are about roughly the same creative, education or business topics so it is natural that they might overlap or expand on each other’s ideas. Many a day I rush into uni to share what I have just learnt with my graphic design students. I have also found that many MOOCs have afforded me what might be called life insights! I can relate themes and concepts across my teaching, creating, business and my life with more ease and less anxiety. Some things that I have learnt in MOOCs will remain mantras for quite a while. And do not neglect the cathartic nature of making creative objects too – even when they are for a deadline!

So, onwards – happy learning!