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How was it? The UK’s first Coursera Moocs assessed

Instructors and students discuss their experiences of the University of Edinburgh’s debut courses on Coursera

Artificial intelligence scientist with robot dog

Source: Science Photo Library

Remotely operated: the focus of the University of Edinburgh’s debut Moocs ranged from artificial intelligence to equine nutrition

In January, the University of Edinburgh became the first UK university to offer massive open online courses on one of the big US Mooc platforms, Coursera.

Its six courses - covering artificial intelligence, astrobiology, critical thinking, e-learning and digital cultures, philosophy, and equine nutrition - attracted 308,000 students, with Introduction to Philosophy the most popular, drawing almost 100,000 participants.

The programmes, which ran over five weeks, had an estimated average completion rate of about 12 per cent, while early figures suggest that each Mooc cost about £30,000 from development to delivery.

But what did instructors and students think?

Siân Bayne, a senior lecturer, and Jeremy Knox, a PhD student, both in the University of Edinburgh’s School of Education, were instructors on the university’s E-learning and Digital Cultures Mooc.

From August 2012 until the course went live in January, Knox estimates he was spending about eight hours a week on Mooc-related activity. During the five weeks of the course itself, this figure doubled, he says.

“Populating the platform itself was quite time-consuming, but we thought that once it was up and running, it would kind of run itself. That’s the impression we got from Coursera - just wind it up and watch it go. However, we found that we were spending a lot of time monitoring the course while it was going.”

In contrast to the set-up of many programmes offered via Coursera, the developers of Edinburgh’s e-learning course opted against having the content driven by audiovisual footage of lectures delivered to camera, choosing instead to curate open-source online content, including YouTube footage and academic papers.

The decision proved unpopular with some students, Knox says, as they had been expecting to see professors imparting knowledge as they would in a lecture theatre.

“Lots of people describe ‘face to face’ as a gold standard, but we have tried to disregard that idea. People come with expectations…If I was approaching the Mooc again, I would try to be very clear up front about what the course is and what it isn’t.”

Bayne says that a lack of “talking heads” might have made some participants feel that there was “no ‘professor’ present in the course” - a problem exacerbated by the vast number of students per instructor.

“As a team, we were putting a lot of work into forums, the Twitter stream and so on. But when the teacher-to-student ratio is 1:8,000, any interventions you make are going to be tiny, tiny contributions to the whole, however hard you work. I think we might need to come up with some alternative strategies for making our presence felt next time.”

Community spirit develops

However, despite some criticisms, groups of engaged students did start to emerge, making use of the course’s interactive forums and other social media channels to form virtual study communities.

“There was a very engaged group that began forming a community before the course even started,” Knox explains. “They were using social media to meet each other, and were very happy with the idea of self-directing their study. They got it.”

Bayne says she was “astounded” by the number of people discussing the Mooc online. Its Facebook group attracted more than 4,500 members, with a further 2,000 on Google+.

On Twitter, about 700 tweets used the course’s #edcmooc hashtag every day, with numbers rising to 1,500 on occasion. In addition, nearly 1,000 blogs were started by participating students. “The sheer volume and energy of it was really exciting,” she says.

In total, some 42,000 students enrolled on the five-week course, with about 17,000 logging in at least once in that period. The number of students engaging dropped each week, and Knox estimates that some 2,000 students completed the final assignment.

However, he is not disheartened by the figures. “In traditional education there’s a perception that you have to see it through to assessment. [But with a Mooc] you don’t necessarily have to begin and end at the same time as everyone else. There are other ways to get value from courses,” he says.

Bayne agrees. “With this kind of scale there is absolutely no way you can please everyone, so I think you just have to offer a Mooc that you are happy with in terms of content and design, have a clear sense of what you’re trying to achieve with it, and stick to your guns,” she says. “We did that, and enough people completed it and enjoyed it to have made it an absolutely worthwhile adventure.”

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Readers' comments (1)

  • I attended the edcMOOC. The resources were interesting, and well chosen to provoke a good debate on some key issues in the field. The choice of AV resources, and a digital artefact for assessment was innovative.

    However ... at the end of five weeks, most participants were still posting comment like: "I liked the Corning video".

    Pity, the MOOC never achieved lift -off in terms of academic rigour or challenging debate. It was a 'nice' shop window for Edinburgh, but that's not what a university course, or MOOC should aspire to.

    Verdict: well conceived, but for the most part, it never got off the ground, apart from a few interesting assessment pieces, which I guess could have been completed without attending the MOOC.

    And Coursera? well, less said the better.

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