What You Should Know Before Enrolling in a MOOC

MOOCs shot up in popularity two years ago and this year they're being dismissed by many education writers and bloggers for their high drop out rates. Most people that I read about who are criticizing them have never actually done a course. After taking half a dozen courses for the last two years, here are my thoughts, reflections and recommendations.

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What Exactly is a MOOC?
It's a free, college level professional course. Through them, you'll find a growing variety of courses that are being offered in an even larger growing palate of disciplines from typical subjects such as social sciences and biology to topics that are coming to the forefront of society and politics such as healthcare and artificial intelligence.  Most of them are offered by professors at top schools such as Berkeley, Harvard and Yale.

Why Take a Course?
People taking MOOCs are just folks that want to advance their education but maybe don't have the money to afford a college level course. Judging from the demographics, most people are in their mid to late twenties.
I wrote once that MOOCs will level the playing field between rich and poor although courses you complete for a MOOC don't translate into "University Credit" although some offer certificates of completion. Because of this, MOOCs have an extremely high drop out rate with some statistical indicators saying that around 4% of all enrollments actually finish the course. It is because of this that MOOCs are heavily criticized and many wonder if they have lasting power. 

Who is Offering Them?
The big three platforms offering them which are CourseraUdacity and Edx. Some of these may have as many as 100,000 sign ups, but there are people and organizations who are offering smaller courses. I've learned about some courses through Edmodo and Google + communities.

What Should You Know Before Enrolling
Clear your Calendar. The first class I ever took and finished was a course on Professional Learning Networks which I learned about on Edmodo. It was small with roughly 100 people. Luckily, it was during the summer when I had a lot of down time. Doing the class was a lot easier with not "alot on my plate". Just this spring I signed up for a class on Human Physiology which was unfortunately during a time when I was finishing up some graduate school work and also had a one week holiday during the course which made it difficult to keep pace with the other students as I was off the grid for 9 days. Minimize the distractions, and chances are better that you'll stick with it.

Know What You Want Out of It. With the human physiology course, I was swamped with other work I was doing. However, I really enjoyed listening to the videos during my prep periods. They gave me ideas that I wove into my unit on human bodies systems with my seventh graders. The videos were the extent that I wanted to participate and I was cool with that. Some courses are starting to survey participants before hand to see if they actually intend to complete the coursework, do the assessments, participate in community discussion or do hangouts with other members. Know yourself and what you hope to learn from it.

Take Courses That Benefit Your Practice. The first course I signed up for was "Intro to Statistics". As a teacher, I use data a lot in my practice and I thought a refresher course in statistics might help me glean some new things on how to aggregate and analyze data on student achievement. Eventually, the course got into statistics that I don't use, so I abandoned it. I got what I wanted out of it, and once it stopped being relevant, I was gone.
My course progress on Statistics
Consider Taking Courses With Peers. I enrolled in a course on "Next Generation Science Standards" through Coursera as our science department is thinking of piloting them next year. After passing the info on to my colleagues, my school's curriculum coordinator and 3 other science teachers have signed on to get a better feel of what these standards are and what they entail. Our school's Technology Resource facilitator took a MOOC a few years ago on "Moodle" which is an organizational platform our school was going to pilot the following year. Taking it gave him some insight on setting and administration of the system. It's for this reason that a course was invaluable to a group of people that want to get training for an upcoming school-wide vision.

Self Paced or On a Schedule? This varies. For my course on "Intro to Statistics" though Udacity, the lessons were all self-paced and I could do them at any speed I wanted. Want to spend an afternoon doing 10 units? Sure! Want to take a week off? No problem! With the scheduled course, the timing keeps things going at a certain pace. My wife recently finished a MOOC on cooking and nutrition that was on a schedule that forced her to commit to make recipes with the new materials. As she cooks a lot, this was easy for her. For me, I like the self paced classes where I can do a weekend binge if I want.

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