In Which I Finally Pass a MOOC

You know what’s kind of sad? I work at the first liberal arts college to join EdX, and I’m a serial MOOC (massive open online course) dropout. I’ve tried; I honestly have. I’ve signed up for several MOOCs, started a few, got most of the way through a couple, and failed them all. Until last week!

Last week, I successfully completed VJx, Visualizing Japan (1850s-1930s): Westernization, Protest, & Modernity through EdX.

The Tokyo Riot Graphic
The Tokyo Riot Graphic

All throughout this course, I had thoughts on what about it was so appealing to me compared to the courses I’ve taken and failed in the past.

  1. My attention span for videos (and movies and lectures and any situation where people are talking AT me) is ridiculously low – ever since high school, I’ve had to force myself to pay attention in situations like that. (Makes conferences super awesome – NOT.) So MOOCs that rely heavily on videos that are longer than 5 minutes long tend to turn me off. VJx’s videos were numerous (up to 10 per day), but nearly all clocked in at under 5 minutes. Plus, the instructors talked slowly in real time, so I was able to speed up the videos to 1.25 or 1.5 times and easily understand them.
  2. Exceptional video transcriptions let me hear AND read the video lectures at the same time. Multiple paths in my brain processed the content. (Previous MOOCs I’ve taken have had only moderately-high quality transcriptions, and the errors would disrupt the flow of learning.)
  3. We were analyzing images in this course, not texts.  I can only analyze text in printed, dead-tree form, but struggle with analyzing text on the computer.  However, I don’t have ingrained habits around image analysis, simply because I haven’t done much of it, so looking closely at images on the computer was new and novel, and allowed me to begin to build habits around image analysis.
  4. The instructors built in constant feedback and assessment into the course. Every single video had feedback questions directly below the video. Having that immediate feedback reinforced what I was learning in the videos. Plus, the types of feedback varied. There were multiple choice questions, image identification questions, image sorting exercises, and many more types of feedback and assessment. A colleague referred to this as a the “worksheet method” of learning. Who knew that I was wired to excel at that? At any rate, it worked for me.
  5. Using the discussion forum was optional, not required. One problem I have with many online communities is the noise factor: there are so many people talking at once that it can be  difficult to hear any one person. This MOOC encouraged some use of the forums, but didn’t require it, which meant I was free to dip in and out of the forums based on when I could handle the noise.
  6. The progress page was really well laid-out, and frankly, encouraged me to try to answer every single question (including on the unit quizzes and final exam) correctly. Apparently my motivation can be earned by using clear bar charts.

There is growing body of research on pedagogy in MOOCs. I don’t know if I am a typical MOOC student/learner or not. This course might not be well-suited for people who want more discussion, who learn by writing, or who are able to follow longer videos and/or lectures.  But what the folks who developed and taught VJx put together certainly hit upon my learning sweet spots.

Edited to add: Have you taken a MOOC? Did you complete it? What features about the MOOC environment worked or didn’t work for you? Which of those do you think are personal preference, and which are part of how the MOOC systems are constructed? I know I focused a fair amount in this post about how these features that worked for me might be based on personal preference – but is that really the case?

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