One of my favorite modes of procrastination is to go on Coursera and browse all the different free classes I can take. I've even registered for a few, including a course on Greek and Roman mythology taught by Dr. Peter Struck. Penn hired Peter when I was a senior graduate student and he was a member of my dissertation committee. He's also an award-winning instructor, prize-winning author, and all-around smart guy. I was intrigued to see what the experience of a MOOC would be like from the point of view of a student, and thought this was a good place to get started. I'm also taking BlendKit 2012, an online class about blended learning. BlendKit 2012 is a smaller group, looks to be more instructional design folks than professors, and is more likely to be people of relatively similar knowledge levels. Because I teach during the weekly, live webinar, I'm what they are calling an "asynchronous" participant.
Some first impressions from my return to the "classroom":
a. the quality of filming for the mythology MOOC is very high quality. Unlike many free online courses (e.g. Open Yale Courses) these lectures are filmed explicitly for the MOOC audience. The instructor is front and center; there are no random backs of students' heads. Perhaps most importantly, the framing of the shot creates the impression that I'm a part of things and not a voyeur lurking high up and far away from the instructor and the rest of the students.
b. in a typical class, the instructor makes a point of underscoring his/her accessibility and availability to the students. We encourage them to connect with us, particularly in larger classes where they might not otherwise feel a connection to us. In the MOOC, it is all about repeating that students should not expect contact from the instructor/instructional team because there are so many students (50,000 in this particular course). On the course syllabus and in the introductory lecture, it is made clear that the instructor's job is to deliver content. Everything else connected to the course will be done by computer (quizzes) or peer instruction (papers, discussion). On the one hand, I absolutely understand the need to make this clear. On the other, I found it weirdly off-putting. I'm not used to my instructors telling me not to bother them. I'm wondering how effective peer-instruction will be when the students don't know each other in person and, having done a lot of peer review of papers in my courses, I'm pretty skeptical about the ability of students to grade other student papers. I'm willing to be shown that my concerns are misplaced, however.
c. The MOOC is *a lot* of work. Several (5-10) lectures that are 15-20 minutes long + substantial readings of difficult ancient texts. It seems to pretty much Dr. Struck's regular Penn mythology class broken down into shorter but more frequent lectures. His Penn course may include more theory (I'm not sure) and obviously has exams, but otherwise the MOOC course seems pretty similar. As the course goes on, I'll be interested to see the level at which the lectures are pitched. So far, it seems pretty high. I'll also be interested to see what the completion rate is, especially relative to other Coursera courses; and the demography of the people who finish the class. I am going to try to be one of them.
d. In the BlendKit introductory webinar, I was struck by how many of the participants were instructional design folks. It is interesting to see the extent to which blended learning is still such a new frontier at colleges and universities, but also the extent to which the teaching specialists are working to become informed advocates of its principles. The sort of networking that BlendKit 2012 is facilitating is crucial to the wider implementation of blended learning techniques and to the development of "best practices".
e. I had to giggle at one aspect of the BlendKit course: badges. It seems that people never outgrow their need to have some sort of outward mark of their accomplishments! I am knee-deep in implementing my own blended learning course and mostly interested in lurking, doing readings when I can, and just hearing what people have to say. I will try to participate in discussions when I can, but I'm not sure how often that will be. I'm pretty sure I won't meet the requirements for my weekly badge and I'm ok with that. But I gather that collecting badges and certificates is going to be the Next Big Thing. Alas. [a great post on the disruptive power of badges: http://hastac.org/blogs/slgrant/2012/10/05/questions-about-badges-higher-ed#comment-20505]