A real world MOOC experience

19 Jun
June 19, 2014

Massive Open Online Courses – MOOCs – have come in for a bashing from a number of areas.  But what’s it like to actually participate in a MOOC and see it all the way through? To be one of the few – some say as little as 7% – who actually complete a course? Well this post tells you all.

Back at the beginning of the year I said there would be a number of trends that I’d be watching.  Relating to MOOCs I said: “Massive Open Online Courses – or MOOCs – are potentially transforming higher education as courses – some attracting over 100,000 students – are thrown open to all.  I’ve read widely on this subject but still can’t see – from a business point of view  – how all the numbers stack up.  I’m still left wondering how MOOCs will, in the longer term, actually pay for themselves.  I’ll be following this closely.”

But I decided to go a lot further than actually sticking to desk research. I decided to take a MOOC – and this is my story.

Choosing the course:

Using the MOOC aggregator – mooc-list – I sourced a course I already had some knowledge in, the thought being that as this was a totally new divergence for me it was better to enter some form of familiar territory.  I therefore chose On strategy:  What managers can learn from the great philosophers from Ecole Central Paris both for the links with my expertise and also the relative short duration of the programme.  I wanted this to be a success!


The course was being operated though the Coursera platform and I was led here to register.  The process was about as painless as it could be – just name, gender, age and a confirmation of my email address and I was in!

Course provider:

The course was provided through Ecole Central Paris but to be honest it didn’t really matter as it could have been any course in any city


The course consisted of 6 lessons – all of which were a series of video-based lectures.  These were:

  1. The forgotten half of change
  2. How do we think
  3. On the shoulders of giants
  4. Mental models and perception
  5. Eureka or Caramba?
  6. Thinking in new boxes

Each lesson followed a familiar recipe:

  • Introduction from the teaching staff – not much, just a simple page saying hello and welcome
  • Video lectures – mostly 5-8 minutes in length – and between five and eight videos per lesson
  • An assessment – generally this was pretty easy and the grading scales were clear
  • Peer assessment – an unusual twist where your fellow course members marked your assessments – and vice versa – as part of your ongoing assessment
  • Forums for general and lesson-specific discussion

The syllabus was timeline driven.  You had to wait for a lesson to ‘open’ before you could start and peer assessment was only possible after the lesson had ‘closed’.  This is a real throwback to the current classroom model and was – to be frank – something I hadn’t expected.  There were occasions when I had the time and inclination to perhaps do two lessons in a row – but couldn’t.  Equally there were times when due to work/travel pressure I could really have done with a few days extra for my assignment – again there was none.


Overall the assessments were straightforward and very short although at times quite confusing.  This became apparent when there was a mass agreement that all students could retake lesson 4 because of the nature of the assessment and the fact that many of the students did not have English as their first language.  As the course provider said, “It’s a first experience for us too, and we have to learn and to improve, so feel free to post feedbacks and advices, we’ll notice them.”

Peer review:

Part of the marks awarded for each lesson came from the fact that you would review and mark the work of fellow students.  The marking pages were always clear, showing you how and why you should allocate marks e.g.

0 marks if no description

1 mark if description confusing or inadequate

2 marks for a comprehensive description

Each of my assignments was graded by a minimum of five students and the grade awarded is the median of all five grades.  In my experience the biggest problem was that students failed to read the question – no change there then – and headed off in their own direction.  The quality of the assignments was broad – as were the comments received

And now the acid test – did I learn anything?  Well, to be honest – yes, and no.  There was, in my view – and one expressed by many of the other students – a real disconnect between what should have been the soul of the course – what business can learn from philosophers – and many of the exercises we did.  There were a number of times when I actually wondered what subject I was learning.

But here – for me anyway – was the interesting bit.  As someone with two business degrees, who runs a business and who has set up and run businesses on behalf of other people I went into the course feeling that I probably knew most of the content – and I did.  But the strange thing was that the assignments and video lectures made me think differently – they made me come at problems and situations from a different angle – and I will forever be grateful for that.

Coursera platform:

The platform was about as simple as you can get.  Lists of lessons – broken down into videos and assignments.  Not a complex system to develop and at times it showed.  I guess over time it’ll get better and slicker but it worked – for the most part.


It’s been my first foray into a MOOC – it was tough at times but I’d certainly do it again.  I now look at much of the current research in a different light – perhaps only 7% complete the course but if we have 100,000 on a course – as some do – and everyone learns a little then surely that’s something. Surely giving everyone a little access to education is better than giving a few access to it all.

Call to action

Go to http://www.mooc-list.com/ and give it a go.  After all, it’s free and it’s education and while in the West we take it all for granted there are many across the globe who would cry out for such opportunities.

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5 replies
  1. Con Sotidis says:

    Good to see you had a lovely experience Jonathan. Like you I am also a skeptic to this FAD but what is missing for me is can / will MOOCs work effectively in the corporate environment.

    Interesting how you did a MOOC that you already had some knowledge on and also even more interesting are your observations of the journey.

    I have started a few myself and I am one of the drop outs – does it affect me – not in the slightest.

    So like you I did not give up – I gave it another go and signed up to this Intrepid Learning MOOC – well the MOOC has started and not one email not one reminder no learner support at all ! Even when I tweeted them I got nothing – lucky for me Martin Couzins responded to me tweet and then they twigged – you see I am a nobody just a number in this MOOC database (but looks like Martin is higher on the list than me;)) – this is why MOOCs will not succeed – the MASSIVENESS of these platforms overlooks the fundamental aspect of any learning offering – the pre and post support that most learners are looking for.

    In one of these MOOCS the tutor was posting extra material on Facebook – I wrote to him, and explained that as I do not do Facebook can he post this material also on a blog or somewhere else where I can access. His response – sorry cant help you buddy – you need to join Facebook. Gimme a break !!

    And the want me to support MOOCs? You think given this great start I will now continue with this MOOC ? Why should I?

    Soap Box now handed over to someone else..

    • Jonathan Kettleborough says:

      Hi Con,

      Thanks as always for your thoughts and insights. You’re spot on, I was rather sceptical about MOOCs which is why I decided to give one a go because there’s nothing worse then someone ‘banging on’ about something they have never tried. I also wanted to finish it so that I could experience the whole MOOC environment and see for myself what all the hype was about.

      Since my post I’ve had to per review the last assignment which was of an exceptionally high quality – as though all the ‘wannabes’ had fallen by the wayside and the real achievers had broken through. Rather like tough selection courses – only the determined and best will get to the end (personally I was just bl**dy minded!). Despite the ‘high-brow’ forum discussions during the course the main discussion now is all about when the certificate will be issued and the number of retakes that have been offered – and therefore how long the course is taking to ‘complete’. MOOC learners are impatient – and rightly so – they want their education NOW and their certificates NOW – and this is something we’ll have to cater for in the future.

      There’s clearly much learning to be done about how best to deliver a MOOC and I guess it’s a bit like being any form of pioneer – Wild West or Australia – there’s changes to be made at every stage such as your comment about using Facebook. It’ll develop, it’ll mature and it’ll get much better.

      However, and it’s a BIG however, I do see a real future for the MOOC. Yes they are a bit rough at the moment and don’t always work well but then a ‘class’ with 10,000 learners is never going to be an easy place to manage. I think the real ‘trick’ could be for corporate learning. Think for a moment, if you need to know about advanced strategy then you can potentially sign-up to the best universities on the planet and gain some information. Sure it’s not perfect but it’s now and it’s virtually free.

      I’ve always been a believer that education – of all kinds – should be as accessible as possible. In my view, the people who WANT an education will do anything to get it. Look at children in Africa who will walk for hours to go to school, or Indians who pre and post work will attend open learning centres so they can gain skills to get a better job. The MOOC is providing open access to education and there are millions of people who will grasp this firmly with both hands. They are our threat – not the MOOC.

      Like any new inventions – railways, motor cars etc., we will see an explosion of providers followed by massive market consolidation – but we will be left with an open learning marketplace – of that I am sure.

      MOOCs are not perfect – but then very little is. I’m planning to do some more in due course, specifically to feed my curiosity about certain subject areas.

      I’d be really interested to hear what others have to say. This is a pioneering time and we really have the opportunity to shape the future.


  2. tanyalau says:

    Hi Jonathan, well done on participating in your first MOOC. I absolutely agree – there is nothing more hypocritical than someone spouting an opinion about something they have no experience of. And I think if you’re genuinely interested in learning and education you’re bound to be curious about this phenomenon.

    I’ve done a few too – the gamification (x)MOOC on coursera and a couple of (c)MOOC (‘connectivist Moocs), and whilst the gamification mooc was quite well done (one of the better quality ones so I’ve heard), I find connectivist MOOCs by far a much more interesting proposition. I’ve written some more extensive reflections here (including how they *might* be applied in a corporate context) if you’re interested http://explorationsinlearning.wordpress.com/2014/06/22/reflections-on-the-value-of-moocs/ but in short it’s the focus on connection rather than simply content access that provide the potential for long term impact. That, and the tendency to be less ‘massive’ (100s, rather than 1000s) provide greater opportunity for meaningful conversation.
    I think the (seemingly) obsessive focus on completion is absolutely short sighted, and pretty much frames the conversation about MOOCs in the same closed box as elearning on an LMS. Completion in and of itself is next to meaningless – let’s expand the conversation to focus on outcomes and impact – and give people some credit to be a bit more self directed in their learning. This is where, when you look at the outcomes of cMOOCs and the way the experience is ‘designed’ (very different to the highly structured, linear pattern of xMOOCs) the limitations of the xMOOC model become clear.
    That’s not to say there’s no place for xMOOCs at all – absolutely there is. In situations where learning objectives are clearly defined, or your goal is to develop foundational knowledge, etc. But there is much more potential for Moocs than just this model.
    The other thing I’d add is that the concept of MOOCs providing access to education to the third world is possibly more hyped up than the big MOOC providers might want to admit. The reality is that most participants in these moocs are educated westerners. There are cultural, context, language and infrastructure issues aren’t often acknowledged by these MOOC providers. This Inside Highered article provides a bit more insight into this: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/04/25/moocs-may-eye-world-market-does-world-want-them#sthash.ciujvbEx.dpbs

    Anyhow, thanks for the post, it was good to read of your experiences, and look forward to more conversations and MOOC adventures…perhaps we will meet in a MOOC one day!

    • Jonathan Kettleborough says:

      Hi Tanya,

      Thanks so much for your comprehensive comment. I think your observation regarding the connectivity between learners is well made. Many years ago while at business school we were told we’d learn 50% from the professors and 50% from the people in the class. This turned out to be spot on.

      There’s not getting away from the fact that good and engaging learning is a social event and the ability to connect in a meaningful way does enhance the learning experience.

      Perhaps in future MOOC should stand for Manageable Open Online Course 😉

      Thanks again for the comments and also the great link to your blog.


  3. tanyalau says:

    Hi Jonathan – it was a pleasure and thanks for your response. I’m ‘participating’ (well in reality just hacking around the edges) of the ‘Mooc on Corporate moocs’ at the moment (which Con mentions in his comment above) and there is a video from Elliot Maisie where he suggests changing ‘course’ to ‘collaboration’ in the MOOC acronym. I reckon this is on the money (although many xmooc formats would struggle to live up to that…but a step in the right direction).
    Thanks again, and I have enjoyed sharing ideas with you Jonathan. Until next time…!


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