Getting the Most from a MOOC

The key strategies.


July 28, 2014

When MOOCs are contrasted with traditional residential courses, such comparisons are often based on individual components (video vs. live lectures, online forums vs. classroom discussion, multiple-choice tests vs. graded papers, etc.).

While such comparative analyses are worthwhile, they may miss the most important element of learning success: the motivation level of a student.

A personal analysis of this phenomenon derives from my Degree of Freedom project, which involved an attempt to learn the equivalent of what a student would get from completing a four-year liberal arts BA program in just twelve months using only MOOCs and other forms of free learning. This required taking over thirty courses to completion over the course of 2013 and (critically) attempting to get the most out of each individual course.

Because MOOCs can vary widely in terms of level of demand (some of them did their best to transfer as much syllabus material as possible from an existing classroom-based course to the screen, while others taught a subset of what might be included in a full-semester class), getting the most from a MOOC can involve a number of strategies.

In addition to watching all lectures, completing assigned reading, and putting best effort into graded quizzes and writing assignments, other means of maximizing learning include:

  • Treating each course with the same level of seriousness one would if sitting in the front row of a traditional classroom with the professor three feet in front of you. This means taking careful notes during video lectures, not multitasking while the professor is talking, and only pausing to look something up relevant to the subject being discussed (not checking e-mail or Tweeting).
  • Understanding and aligning yourself with the mission for a course. Professors create MOOCs for a reason, often revealed during a course’s opening lecture. For example, HarvardX’s Ancient Greek Hero is built around Professor Greg Nagy’s desire to teach students how to read out of, rather than read into, ancient Greek texts. And by dedicating time to figuring out what that meant and internalizing such a mindset, I found myself not just informed but transformed by the experience of taking this popular edX Humanities MOOC.
  • Completing optional as well as required assignments. For example, in one course where passing required scoring well on eight peer-graded essays, I completed an optional ninth writing assignment (created to give students the chance to make up for a low-scoring previous essay) despite having already gotten past the threshold for a passing grade.
  • Finding your own (often ungraded) ways to put learning to work. In one of my philosophy MOOCs, for instance, grading was based entirely on a four short quizzes and a lengthier final exam (all multiple-choice and all relatively easy). In order to add my own writing component to the course, I used a weekly requirement to contribute to the discussion forums as the framework for writing and submitting short essays vs. quick comments or replies.
  • Speaking of essays, a set of course reviews I wrote and published (which served as an important component of this portfolio) also turned out to be an effective (albeit ungraded) capstone assignment for each completed class.
  • Putting extra effort into creating a community of learners. It’s all too easy to get lost in the crowd in a MOOC, and I’ll admit that my frantic course schedule left me little time to contribute enough to forum discussions or create my own live or virtual learning groups. But on those occasions when I did participate in online forums, the level of conversation was remarkably high (reflecting the high educational levels of many MOOC participants). And in the one course where I managed to pull off some face-to-face meet-ups, the chance to talk out rather than type up thoughts was a powerful reminder of how much of learning is social.

Because most MOOCs are pass/fail with relatively low cut scores (60% will often get you a certificate), it’s easy to do the minimum and still obtain a passing grade. But for a committed student, passing is just a byproduct that comes automatically to anyone who makes a goal of maximizing their own learning.

At the end of my project, I provided both prosecution and defense arguments over whether my One Year MOOC BA should be considered the equivalent of a four-year residential one. And regardless of the ultimate verdict, there is no question that earning my original residential degree years ago and last year’s program of intense online learning were two distinct educational experiences.

But one thing unites them and all learning programs whether parchment-, blackboard-, or Internet-based: the student willing to put the most into a course will always get the most out of it.

Jonathan Haber is Chief Learner at Degree of Freedom. His book, MOOCs: The Essential Guide, will be published by MIT Press in October. (Note: A version of this blog first appeared on edX.org.)


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