CourseTalk and other things to evaluate MOOCs

“What’s sex?”
“Wait? You’re a virgin? You’ve been kicking around with her and you’re a… a v-v-virgin? Well, I won’t spoil the surprise. Boy, are you in for a treat.”
Lincoln Six-Echo (an adult clone) and Tom Lincoln in “The Island”

Despite some negative experiences with MOOCs, most are really well done. As there are just way too many MOOCs that are offered to take all the courses you are interested in — a bit like a child in a sweet shop, you can get your mouth so full that you cannot chew anymore — prioritization is key. Also, the right expectation helps.

For prioritization, CourseTalk is a very good website that collects ratings and reviews about MOOCs. Many are offered multiple times and they give you a good impression whether the course is something or not.

As for the right expectation, given the heterogeneous quality (esp. at Coursera), I think it’s best to use the first week to try the course out without any hopes that the course is done well. If it is really good, you are pleasantly surprised, if not, you can move on without becoming entrenched in discussions of how bad or unfair things are.

So far, I found the following aspects relevant for deciding whether to invest the time and effort in a course or not:

  • Certificate is available
    I’m not a certificate junkie, but I think that receiving a certificate in the end allows you to find closure when the course is over. It is also an indicator that the instructors think their content is worth teaching and that they have thought about what they consider worth learning — and thus worth giving a certificate for.
  • Instructors take their role seriously
    Some instructors promote a “let’s learn together” attitude. Nothing wrong with that, but it becomes a problem if they think that students can compensate for their lack of preparation. There should be a reason there is a course and the instructors hopefully have knowledge about the subject that is a) not trivial, b) helpful and c) presented in a way to help learning. And you can’t just wring a course with hundreds or thousands of students. If they promote a ‘let’s just come together and talk about attitude’ it raises the questions: Do they know what they want to teach? How to support learning? And what should be understood to consider the course a success?
  • Course starts with a bang!
    If the course starts off really badly there is rarely an improvement over time. Not only because in some cases the lecture videos were done in advance and cannot be changed, but also because some seriously think that their really bad presentation is actually … good. This raises some awkward questions about their department and the kind of feedback culture they have (none or a false-positive one, most likely). BTW, it also points to one of the great advantages of MOOCs — the Ivory Tower world gets some public feedback. Anyway, if the course lectures start off badly, you might be better off if you quit the course. The (other) good students are very conscious of their time and do not want to waste it, so even if the course improves, many of the good fellow students will have left. And using a “I’ll filter out the students who are not really interested by making the first week bad” is a ridiculous strategy. Interest happens between the person and the situation — and if the instructor does his/her best to make the situation unbearable, it’s no wonder that many people quit. At worst, it can burn students for the subject at hand.
  • You don’t get played
    There are a couple of things instructors can do to (try to) get a lot out of the course. For example, getting the students to participate in research, asking them to use commercial services, buy books as required reading, or simply cutting down the course and offering ‘more complete’ material for payment. While I can understand that instructors want to get something for their invested time, I also think that this is highly unethical. After all, a MOOC should be open for the public and people who dumb down the material to get you to pay for it aren’t the best teachers. They think of knowledge as something to be hoarded and given out reluctantly, instead of something that should be shared. A very bad sign in an instructor. The good ones will simple do a damn good course and offer additional material that could not be fitted into the course as additional reading or further study material, including their own books. And if the course was really good, I think chances are good that they sell a lot — honestly.

But these are my criteria — what are yours? After all, MOOCs are part of informal learning, MOOCs should be fun — hard and serious fun that is. How do you ensure it for you?

Happy learning 🙂