MOOCs and Coursera and Games–Oh, My!

My MOOC Classroom
My MOOC Classroom

If you’re visiting this site, chances are you’ve already heard something about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), and in fact you may be way ahead of me in taking advantage of them.  My undergrad alma mater, Harvard, has partnered with MIT, Berkely, and other notable institutions to offer free courses on their MOOC site, EdX.  And lots of people all over the world are already taking advantage of the free offerings on Coursera, as well.

Granted, MOOCs may not be for everyone.  Completing a MOOC offering may bring you a certificate, but it does not translate to any form of college credits or formal degree.  So, it depends on your needs.  I’m fine with that “learning for learning’s sake” model.   Many offerings tend to run for a few weeks, like a continuing education class.  If you have been curious about the possibilities of  MOOCs, the price is certainly right to find out if they will work for you.  I was seeing some good buzz online for a Coursera session about Gamification, taught by Professor Kevin Werbach of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  Gamification is the process of applying the motivational principles typically used in gaming (video, online, etc.) to other environments (like business or education) to motivate learning and behavioral change.  (It does not mean literally turning everything into a game.)  I have always tried to incorporate subtle elements of gamification as a means of engaging learners in the eLearning courses I develop.  Some organizations are more open to it than others, but I think more are finally starting to catch on to its potential.  I came by my own knowledge of gamification principles by osmosis over many years of being out there creating eLearning courseware, playing the occasional game, and being a professional actor (which is all about playing freely and intuitively).  But I hadn’t formally studied the history and psychology of gamification, so it seemed an ideal topic for exploring the MOOC experience itself.

Now that I’m nearing the end of the six-week session, I’m taking a break from working on my final homework assignment (yes, there’s homework!) to record my thoughts about the experience so far.  Right off the bat, I have to tell you that I’m having a blast.  Given that the number one element of successful gamification is FUN, I’d say the course is doing its job very well.  Professor Werbach’s video lectures are genuinely engaging, and interesting.  His sense of humor and enthusiasm for the topic are infectious, and his expertise is apparent in every aspect of the way the course is run.  Each week he releases two hours of lectures, broken down into manageable chunks of 8-12 minutes each.  The lectures include unscored quiz questions at instructionally sound intervals (roughly every 5 minutes) to make sure you’re getting–and retaining–the key points.  And then there is a scored quiz most weeks.  While I’ve done well on the scored quizzes, there have been a few questions I think could be better worded.  So, I took advantage of the course’s Discussion Forums to post my thoughts.  Despite having probably 10K+ students still enrolled by this point, darned if I didn’t receive a reply post from Professor Werbach himself!  I was extremely impressed by that.  It’s a given in MOOC-land that you shouldn’t expect or seek out direct contact with the professor–after all, the ratio of students to professor is astronomically unbalanced.  But I have seen Professor Werbach and his staff post responses to a number of items on the forum, reinforcing the conviction that while the student body is huge, and there is no brick-and-mortar classroom, there is still someone at the head of the class, keeping an eye out for student questions.  Granted, he didn’t agree with my suggestions about clarifying a couple of the questions, but that’s his prerogative.  He did acknowledge that a high volume of participants agreed with me on another question, and noted that it is under review for possible retroactive regrading. I know the professor understands that for a lot of his students, it’s not about the points, it’s about the clarity of the learning experience, and we all want to contribute to that.  What I love is that our exchange made us both think again.

In addition to the lectures and the quizzes, there have been a total of three homework assignments.  The first, 300 words maximum.  The second, 500.  The last, for which we have been given two weeks, is 1500 words.  Due to the course’s Honor Code, I can’t discuss the details of the assignments, but I have found them to be fascinating, and a lot of fun to complete.  Who grades all of these submissions, you ask?  In MOOC-land, because of the volume of participants from all parts of the world, homework is reviewed using a peer assessment model.  Each participant is required to review and rate five submissions from fellow students.  The grading rubric is somewhat simplistic, but it basically gets the job done.  And constructive comments are welcomed, which is great.  Having both taught and graded extensively while I was in graduate school, I’m no stranger to the task, and I take that grading responsibility very seriously.  I have not had a lot of comments on my own homework, but have been getting top scores, so I guess I shouldn’t complain.  A couple of the comments have been a bit disappointing, however; they made it clear that the reviewers were not reading as attentively as I would hope.  But then, once in a while I had harried Teaching Assistants do the same thing on my papers at Harvard!  Taken all in all, the peer assessment system works well enough.  I confess that I did enjoy one comment on my second assignment: in the section for “What would have made this submission better was…” the reviewer responded simply: “if the author had been paid for his work!”  I like the sound of that.

There are definitely pros and cons to MOOCs, and from conversations I’ve seen online, it sounds like there’s quite a range of quality from one course to another, so be sure to shop around.  If you’re dependent on face-to-face learning, MOOCs don’t offer that with the teaching staff per se, but you do often have the option of participating in local meet-ups with other enrollees.   I haven’t had the free time to do that, but it looks like plenty of others are taking advantage of it.  And for this course, Professor Werbach has also done three “Office Hours” videos where selected students pose questions of general interest and he responds.  Otherwise, as I’ve noted, you have to post your questions to the Discussion Forums.  But at least in this course, as I mentioned, I’m seeing the Forums get a lot of attention from Professor Werbach and his staff.  And yes, it’s true that the peer review and grading rubric of the homework assignments could be more in-depth.  But then I remind myself of the pricetag for this learning experience: IT’S FREE!  So, honestly, who can complain?  If you’re in the Learning profession, or in any business, and are curious about how the principles of gamification might benefit your processes, I encourage you to keep an eye on Coursera’s listings and jump if Professor Werbach repeats his course in the Fall.  It’s well worth the time you invest.

Another reason I’ve found this first MOOC experience working for me is one of the same reasons I enjoy creating eLearning for my own clients: it’s great when learning can be truly self-paced, and self-motivated, taken from anywhere at any time that the learner finds convenient.  So my garden has become my classroom, and that suits me perfectly.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to put out a few sunflower seeds for the chipmunks, refresh the nectar tray for the orioles, and then get back to my homework!