I just completed the twelve week massive open online course (MOOC) on Complex System Science (Complexity Explorer). It has been a very interesting and enjoyable experience.
This is not the first MOOC I attended or at least registered for, so it also led to some general reflection on which of the MOOCs I liked and why. The outcome was quite surprising to myself since it turned out that I do enjoy conservative teaching methods. This, however, is not the full picture and other factors emerged as important favourable conditions.
As indicator for a positive MOOC experience I took the fact that I did not drop out and succeeded in completing the entire course. And here I have to say that for many a MOOC I have shown an initial interest (e.g. MobiMOOC, EduMOOC, etc.), but this vanished during the run-time of the course, sometimes already at the startup phase. Whether to drop out or not depended mostly on time constraints and effort-vs-benefits considerations, i.e. how much do I get out for the time investment I put in. This led to a prioritisation level for each course, and in many cases the MOOC priority over other parts of life was simply too low to persist.
In this post, I won’t go into the debate on what is a MOOC and what isn’t. Let’s just say it’s an open online course covering a specific topic over a (longer) period of time with some sort of syllabus structure. This distinguishes it from a one-off webinar or online hangouts, etc.
To cut to the chase, here is the list of MOOCs I enjoyed and completed, in chronological order:
Note that the courses were of very different nature: CCK11 and LAK11 were so-called connectivist MOOCs whereas the Yale and SFI courses were simple video deliveries of the lecture kind. In the first two, I enjoyed the community aspect of the course. It brought me in contact with similar minded people from other parts of the world in an vivid exchange and led to lasting connections. In the video courses, it was the self-timing component that enabled me to complete. While the former contained some timetabled events, such as weekly debates, the latter were completely free of timetabling. Even after loosing a week or two, I was able to catch up and get back on top.
Yes, the social component in Yale and SFI were underdeveloped or missing (or not used by myself), still this did no harm to my learning. I want to emphasise that I do not quantify my learning into measurable chunks of increased competence or knowledge units. It is merely the feeling of satisfaction to have learned something new of value to myself (be it professional or simply interesting).
What made the courses worth while my time and effort? I thought long and hard about this, and why it was these courses that I completed successfully and not others. What were the commonalities despite them being almost diagonally different in style, purpose and delivery.
The most important criterion I could distill is a deep personal interest in the respective topic (Astrophysics, Learning, Complex Systems). This was an absolutely essential initial motivator to get me onto the journey.
Secondly, an inspired expert enthused about the subject they present. This amplified my initial interest and kept me going. I also have a great interest in quantum physics, but sadly haven’t yet found the enthusiastic provider that brings this about.
Thirdly, a non-threatening environment to learn. Even though some topics were extremely challenging, I credit the presenters with this important attribute.
Finally, the amount of Shannon information content. Shannon’s information theory describes among other things the amount of interesting newness and surprise in pieces of information. All four courses contained a high level of newness for me. It also has to be said that follow-up courses, e.g. LAK12, decreased rapidly in this respect and turned information into noise. Once the noise level over new information becomes irrational, I lose interest very quickly and the effort-benefit ratio turns negative.