What I Learned as a Student in my First MOOC

June 27, 2013

Sharing is Caring

I’ve been interested in massive open online courses (MOOCs) since I heard about the first ones launched at Stanford in 2011. I’ve followed the topic with help from my favorite education journalist, Audrey Watters’ Hack Education Blog. In this article, I want to share my observations after completing my first MOOC as a student.
I use the term MOOC to refer to courses that have these key properties:
  • open to all
  • free
  • online
  • students interact online
  • mostly asynchronous (no required meeting time)
  • no, some or formal credit may be available to document completion or achievement
This year the MOOC came to our backyard as Penn State teased, then announced what I believe is the first geo-MOOC, Maps and the Geospatial Revolution. It will be offered for the first time this July. I’ve detailed other MOOCs in development or in progress in topics including Esri GIS, GIS education development and Google mapping technologies since that announcement.
In April, I looked at the current offerings and found one I wanted to take. I selected Nutrition, Health, and Lifestyle: Issues and Insights with Jamie Pope, MS, RD, LDN, a faculty member at Vanderbilt School of Nursing. Vanderbilt, like Penn State, uses the Coursera platform. The six-week course involves video lectures, a quiz and an assignment for each week. Each of the six lessons “opened up” on Sunday, and students could work through the material during that week. However, the final due date for all the work was the final day of class.
To ensure I got the complete course experience, I committed to watching all the videos and doing all the homework. I even made a point to attend one of the live Google Hangouts the instructor offered. She ran them from Vanderbilt, with a live student audience. Online students participated by contributing questions in text form. Those who could not attend “live” had access to a replay. 
Below are my observation and takeaways from the course.
I’m Not Big on Videos
I knew from the outset I’d hate having to watch all the videos; each week there were up to a dozen five- to 20-minute segments. To my surprise, once I found the “speed up” button on the video player and made my slow-speaking Southern professor talk more like Alvin the Chipmunk, I was quite happy. I listened to the videos at 2x speed and flipped back to see the slides only when she mentioned something of particular importance. I had no problems understanding the sped-up audio and frankly, I think I may have paid more attention than I might have at regular speed.
Figure 1. The length of videos sometimes seemed overwhelming, but at 2x speed, they went by rather quickly!
In-video Quizzes Help Clarify
Each lecture included several “stops” where students were prompted to answer a multiple choice question. Most were strictly content-based (“Which of the following is a complete protein?”), but others tapped opinions or the student’s lifestyle (“How many vegetarian meals do you eat per week?”). At first I found the questions annoying; they interrupted my listening. In time, I came to realize that they helped me confirm understanding of key ideas such as the difference between prebiotics (foods/supplements that feed the bugs you already host) and probiotics (foods that include live bugs to add to your system).
Special Guests Keep Monotony Away
I really enjoyed the instructor’s interviews with a book author about how people eat around the world. You had to watch the video to appreciate his fabulous photographs of families standing in their kitchens with a typical week’s worth of food. They were just gorgeous! Another interview, with a representative from Smart Balance, the packaged food manufacturer, really riled up students. They described it in the discussion forums as an advertisement for that company’s fortified foods. I loved that students made their voices heard and that the instructor made those videos optional, rather than required. I had already made those videos optional simply because the audio quality was poor. Other interesting guests included a vegan student and a pretty famous sports nutrition professor.
Professor Delivery Matters
While I am not a big fan of videos or lectures, I have to give credit where it’s due: Jamie Pope did a great job with these lectures. They were organized and she was very honest in her delivery. I really did feel like I was in class with some other students, listening and watching. My sense is she was just being herself; seeing her live on the Hangout confirmed that.
Engagement via Assignment
While the videos were passive and the weekly multiple choice quizzes (three chances to get 100%) rather elementary, the assignments were really good! We “did stuff.” 
  • kept an online food journal for three days. I learned something: my sodium intake is really high due to my passion for smoked salmon.
  • explored the details of the supplements we take. I learned my iron supplement has vitamin C added to help ensure absorption. 
  • attempted to include more vegetarian meals in our diets. I got a pass there; I am already a vegetarian, but I did share some recipes on the forums!

Engagement via Discussion

Each week had its own set of discussions. Some topics were prompted by topics in the videos. When the instructor discussed food labels in the video lectures, the focus was on how we do it in the U.S. As part of our discussions Ms. Pope asked students from outside the U.S. to share images of the labels on their countries’ products. 
Mostly, however, the discussions were prompted by students’ interests. The questions were good and the responses thoughtful, supportive and fun-to-read. 
I made it a point to drop into the discussions twice a week to contribute. I could always find topics of interest. One week a student wanted some support and ideas as her boyfriend was just diagnosed with celiac disease (gluten intolerance). I shared what I knew since I have a few friends facing that same challenge. When we discussed plant-based diets one of the first questions posted (and raised in the Hangout) was about the fruitarian (mostly fruit) diet. I had thoughts on that as my current training partner is a fruitarian.
Student Body
I know students came from all over the world because they’d note their home country in their posts. No matter their country, the active students had one important thing in common. Most were seriously interested in the topic! 
People started posts with “In my notes I see that...” I was at first surprised students took notes, but as the course progressed, it seemed less and less surprising. Students really did want to get the most they could out of the course.
While I’m not ready to take a stand, pro or con, on all MOOCs, I have to give this one a solid “A.” I learned a lot (though I did know something about the topic before I started). I was engaged, despite the reliance on video lectures. I looked forward to interacting with my peers in the discussion groups. I easily navigated the Coursera interface. It’s no better or worse than other learning management systems I have used.
What made this course work? My best guess is that it worked because the instructor is passionate about the topic and is a good teacher.

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