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My first MOOC

No,  not my first MOOC, Sarah Siegel’s. Sarah is my guest blogger. I appreciate Sarah’s enthusiasm for learning, experience, community and technology. That’s why I invited her to tell us what happened when she signed up for a MOOC on the subject of E-learning and Digital Culture. This is what she had to say:

My first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) experience – from late-January to early-March, 2013 – was both positive and negative. First, the positives:

  • I took a course from the world-class University of Edinburgh—and I took it for free.
  • Participating in my first MOOC was akin to my early experiences exploring Second Life and other virtual worlds – something new and compelling under the online-learning sun.
  • I joined peers from around the world, including 1:1 exchanges with MOOCmates from Australia, Finland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Scotland and the USA.
  • I relished a range of incidental learning opportunities, such as discovering the Marco Polo Project and a Pinterest board on Edinburgh art – both MOOCmate creations.
  • I thought long and hard about what it means to be “human” and in a very large group and an online course and how to express my individuality within the larger group.
  • I discovered a gorgeous quote from Oliver Sacks while watching an assigned video of Gardner Campbell, which reminded me that full learning is reciprocal, and achieved through feeling at home with experimentation.
  • I engaged in a stimulating live chat one Saturday evening on Twitter, which was conducted by peers.
  • I had fun experimenting with the creation of my “digital artefact”, our final assignment, which was to be no longer than five minutes in duration – it afforded at least four experiences in five minutes!
  • And I conceived a Micro-MOOC™ concept, with implications for employee selection and onboarding.

While much about my first MOOC was promising, there were many negatives:

  • I experienced no student-teacher bonding, none at all. I missed it and was a little bit surprised by that feeling of loss. Can any teacher care individually about thousands of students at once? Is it even possible? What would that caring look like? Is caring too high a bar and should the bar instead be set at personalization?
  • The content did not stretch me. It wasn’t challenging. Where this takes me is that instructors and administrators are responsible for helping me decide if this is the right course for me. Why not a decision tool that helps me figure out if the content will suit?
  • I did not feel as close to my peers as I have felt in other classes. And while I have no quibbles with peer feedback, their feedback on my final assignment wasn’t substantive. While the instructors provided feedback criteria, they did no monitoring at all. The feedback disappointed.
  • I admit that I had difficulty feeling motivated to produce my best work, since the assignments along the way were not rigorous and because I was continually aware that I would receive no credit for the course.
  • The futuristic videos within the MOOC included only white and heterosexual couples, leading me and others in the online community to wonder what other messages were being advanced or avoided in this class.

Despite the disappointing aspects of the experience, I remain a MOOC fan. In part, it’s my job. At IBM I am asked to think about and experiment with learning experiences that extend the physical classroom and push beyond it.

Even before my own experience as a MOOC participant, I was persuaded by:

Walking my talk, I’ve enrolled in a second MOOC, which kicks off in July, A Brief History of Humankind, taught by a Hebrew University professor. In this second MOOC experience I intend to be more proactive in pursuing a teacher-student bond. I will send e-mail directly to the instructor when I’m moved by what I’m learning. It did not occur to me to do this during my first MOOC…. As with any experiment in learning, I and we must learn from the first experience and become more adept/rhythmic with subsequent ones.

It was my hope that the MOOC would take me in a direction I hadn’t yet gone with educational technology courses, and it did. It made me consider human nature and the nature of humans. Why was I lonely in the course, lacking contact with others, needing more ties, more individualization, and more feedback, more of a sense of the instructor and students as people, more connection with their emotions, not just content generation?

Maybe the Hebrew University professor and the course on the history of humankind will help me answer these questions during my next MOOC. What do you think?


Sarah Siegel

Sarah Siegel

Sarah Siegel is a social learning developer with the IBM Center for Advanced Learning. She helps IBMers learn to lead and collaborate, using social technologies. Sarah earned her Master’s in Organization & Leadership with a specialization in Adult Learning and Leadership from Columbia University’s Teachers College. See more at www.linkedin.com/in/sarahsiegel/. The posting on this blog are her opinions and do not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.


  1. Allison, thanks for allowing Sarah to share her experiences. There is alot of comments on MOOCs at the moment which are not informed by experience. It’s nice to see an exception, and to see balanced reporting. MOOCs are undoubtedly the beginning of something – what the end result will be, we cannot tell but we can be sure that MOOCs are going to change both higher education and workplace learning dramatically.

  2. Glad you found it helpful to have a first-hand report. I felt it helpful to experience it first-hand. I hope you and others will try a MOOC and report on your experience among your social networks, too.

  3. Sarah, very informative post. I work in higher ed as a DL director, and I read multiple articles everyday about MOOC’s, none nearly as compelling as this one. I too agree that MOOC’s are the beginning of something, probably much different than their current form and purpose. I tried a MOOC a few months ago, but it was a topic that didn’t interest me so I basically did nothing. I have another coming up soon that is much more relevant, and hope to approach it with the same open mind as you did.

    • Kris, you bring up a huge success factor: The topic needs to be compelling. Sure, I’ve thought of enrolling in an Accounting 101 MOOC, since it’s free — no offense meant to my Accountant friends, but they know that I wouldn’t last in such a course — just for the heck of it, but I know I wouldn’t last. And I really do wish the MOOCs had, if not a sophisticated decision tool, then some sort of rating system that told me how basic, intermediate or advanced they were.

      Two weeks into this five-week MOOC, the professors hosted a Google hangout, where they said that the course was probably at the “Intro. undergrad. level”. I’m not sure I would have classified it even as that, but I’m not sure why that’s one of my complaints, as I think about it. Really, it was a comfy way to get oriented to MOOCs, to start with a laid-back, undemanding one.

  4. Melissa Strongman says:

    Allison, Thank you for inviting Sarah to share her experiences.

    Sarah, Thank you for sharing. You describe the experience of a MOOC both positive and the more challenging not so positive. You have made excellent points that need to be considered for the teacher and the student/participant.

    I had the choice of two difference courses in the area of online learning. One was the course you took. The other, Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application, was the one I selected. I knew that I couldn’t do both. Unfortunately, this course was cancelled due to the large number of participants and the desire of the instructor to get us into groups of 20 for discussion. The organization was not ready for so many participants. By the time the decision was made to pull the plug it was too late to switch to the other course. Now I feel cheated.

    I completed a MOOC in the fall and had a very positive experience with a topic that I had little background in and gained insights and confidence in this subject.

    I think that MOOCs do have a place in our learning diet. If one is desiring to have a personal connection with the teacher, this may not be the avenue for that learning/teaching connection.

    • Melissa, yes, MOOCs may not be ideal for people who thrive in a 1:8 student:teacher ratio. I went to the giant University of Michigan as an undergrad, so I thought I could take the scale, but MOOCs super-size cohorts in a way that disoriented even an alumna of a big state school (me).

      I’m definitely still promoting MOOCs as a way of learning and as my wise colleague Regina Saphier points out repeatedly in her blog, it can be many people’s best access to learning from world-class institutions, depending on their geography and socio-economic status. For me — who is privileged by contrast — I’m now able to enjoy future MOOCs more so, knowing what to expect, and what not to…and as you pointed out, for example, to seek a student-teacher bond in other arenas.

  5. carol ruch says:

    The process of building authentic relationships online seems to be one of the core factors of discontent and disengagement. Perhaps a look at how companies who have succeeded in fostering viable relationships amongst virtual team members is one place to start.

    Nevertheless central to adult learning is the conversational aspect, add to that the never ending technological glitches and it ends up being worth what we’ve “paid” for it.

    • Carol,

      It certainly crossed my mind more than once during the MOOC that “you get what you pay for”, and still, I was greedy and hoped for more connection and a bit deeper content. As I think of it, would I have enrolled had I known it was billed — during the course — as being at an undergrad. intro. level? Probably, since the topic intrigued me, but I’d have had lower expectations if I’d known that upfront. Also, I’m going to think further about how to promote connection among learners on a massive scale; that seems like another good outcome from this first experience — a drive to improve that part of the experience.

  6. Linda Shuttleworth says:

    I was very interested in your experience of edcmooc. I too completed it and looking back on it now I think the real benefit was the links to resources that I’m still dipping into. Of course, it’s hard to make a judgement on MOOCs when they are each so very different. The only MOOC where I didn’t achieve was Intro to Logic – the maths was beyond me, although I’d have cracked it with a bit of help. (Got 69.2%, no certificate, but I was quite pleased with the score!) Then I did Think Again at Duke University. The professors were excellent – both filmed their videos in their little offices and managed to make them informative whilst allowing their personalities to come across. I certainly felt that I got to know them (unlike Edinburgh). (It’s worth taking a look at one of Walter Sinott-Armstrong’s videos just to see his style.) They had 170,000 enrolments so discussion boards were initially chaotic, but settled down and I made links with people. Passed it and have my certificate! I am currently doing Justice with EdX and that’s different again. Michael Sandel’s lectures are given to 1,000 undergraduates and were already freely available on YouTube. Sandel has such a charismatic style. He’s already had one live question and answer session online (answered one of my questions – so I was pleased). But, EdX’s discussion forums aren’t as good as Coursera ‘s. Everyone starts a new thread, so there’s no discussion and I haven’t got to know any other students.
    So, this is my experience of MOOCs. They seem to suit me, although I can’t persuade any of my friends to take them. I do hope you continue blogging, all the feedback adds to possibilities for the future.

    • Linda, your comment was excellently helpful, as I haven’t yet done any comparison shopping.

      P.S. I did hear back from two of the Edinburgh MOOC professors and they agreed that I can post our exchange on my blog, which I hope to do when I get a free moment.

    • This was especially helpful, Linda, to see how MOOCs run by other orgs. work. Thanks for trading notes.

  7. Craig McAllister says:

    “Why was I lonely in the course, lacking contact with others, needing more ties, more individualization, and more feedback, more of a sense of the instructor and students as people, more connection with their emotions, not just content generation?”

    Perhaps that feeling could be mitigated through the use of live video avatars. Virtual classrooms and virtual study groups with live video avatars in real time could bridge the face to face personal connection gap. Each user in a virtual world would be able to see and be seen as a live streaming video avatar in real time. This heightened sense of presence and realism would facilitate more effective instruction and social networking. This would allow each online student to connect to and feel present in a real school type atmosphere and educational community, as well as establish “real time” face-to-face relationships with other classmates, as well as with their respective teachers. I am talking about something roughly like this: http://www.ivn.net/demo.html

  8. Melanie Falu says:

    I’ve taken two MOOC courses. The first on Gamification and currently I’m taking Thinking Critical, How to Argue Effectively. While at times the content may be somewhat boring, I do find myself constantly intrigued by what I’m learning and by who. Basically, I wouldn’t have the time nor energy to attend a live course after work and have any enthusiasm. Because the courses are online and at your own schedule, I find myself viewing the video lectures while power walking on the treadmill. In my opinion MOOC courses are ideal for brain stimulation, convenience and exposure and lastly isn’t it cool to be taught by a Duke Professor or any other elite school you otherwise could not attend.

  9. Craig, I checked out the link you provided and found it actually a bit more alienating than comforting — and I say this as someone who’s a big fan of immersive learning through 3D Internet. Your concept is appealing, but the demo actually made me feel like everyone was a cardboard cut-out with an oddly realistic head. I think it’s a question of when and how, not if such immersive learning will be more common, so thanks for sharing this concept.

    Melanie, sounds like the MOOCs you selected were at your level in terms of intellectual challenge and yes, I agree that the coolest part is having access to professors I wouldn’t have typically. When would I get to study at the University of Edinburgh, working in New York and living in New Jersey as I do?

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