Our homework for the first session of my elective in technology enhanced learning was to participate in a Massively Open Online Course (or MOOC) for at least a few weeks. Given my subject area I thought it might make sense to join one on photography or journalism. I assumed this would narrow down the field but actually that proved to be far from the case as there are an enormous number of photography related MOOCS out there. With a bit more reflection it also seemed like a bad choice to do one in a topic I’m already fairly knowledgeable in. I wouldn’t learn much in return for the time spent and would probably find myself being overly critical of the course materials and approach to the topic as a result.
Instead I decided I’d use the opportunity to get a grounding in something that has been on my ‘to-learn’ list for some time; basic coding. Those two words obviously also encompasses a very wide field, not least in terms of the number of languages I could opt for. In the end, I went for Python, partly because of its alleged simplicity and also because I’ve been told and read that it’s an effective language for some basic data mining techniques, something which is increasingly a part of my photographic work. For a course I opted for Rice University’s An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python after reading some favourable reviews of it and also because it’s latest cycle was starting in a few days. Like many MOOCs this one seems to follow the model of essentially free participation, with a paid for final assessment and certificate. If you’re only really interested in learning how to do something as I am and don’t have any interest in the accreditation then that’s fine. It’s also worth noting that Coursera, the site that the MOOC is conducted thought, also does everything it can to trick you into subscribing even though the content can be accessed for free with a bit of navigation. Anyway, I enrolled and awaited the start of the course, something I will discuss in a future post.
While waiting for the course to start I had a few thoughts based on my previous MOOC participation. While the idea of a basically free course of education is great, in other respects the experience can leave a certain amount to be desired, and they are certainly not an analogue for face to face courses. The massive nature of them means that inevitably interaction with tutors is virtually non-existent. That might matter more or less depending on the subject, and the student. For me it’s a bit of an issue, since my best educational experiences have been those where two-way exchange with a tutor have made it possible to subtly shape the learning experience to my particular interests as a student. Based on my past experience that just isn’t possible with a MOOC, what you are offered is a very rigid and linear framework within which to learn (or not).
I think it’s also worth considering some of the assumptions about what MOOCs are (and why they are). Providers are invariably world leading institutions, who advertise their MOOCs based on the quality of their provision in other areas. On the face of it this would seem to make little economic sense, to undercut traditional courses with free ones, but of course what is offered for free often seems to be a compromised or watered down version of what the institution’s traditional courses might offer, a concession both to the nature of the teaching methods and the economic necessities of creating and running MOOCs. On that note, it is clear that the institutions providing these free courses do not regard themselves as charities (indeed some of the earlier adopters of the approach were amongst the more hardnosed in the university world), so what really is the thinking behind creating these courses, which require considerable effort to establish? Partly it might be good public relations and advertising, but that is only part of the story. The extent to which MOOCs are ‘really’ free is a key question here. I see definite parallels in them with so-called pay-to-play games (which are themselves also often massively online), where the base game comes for free but the player is enticed to pay to unlock various rewards and add ons. The designers of these games introduced a range of constant, clever pressures on players to part with their money at almost every stage of the experience. I wonder if MOOC providers might start to take note of this in the way they design their own courses, offering students a panoply of upgrades and enhancements as a way to make MOOC’s ever more profitable.
More thoughts once I begin the Rice University MOOC in a few days.