Saturday, 1 June 2013

MOOCs... What?

For the first entry in what will, hopefully, be an ongoing review of the world of online learning, it makes sense to begin from basics. 

So what is a 'MOOC'?

MOOCs (Massive Open Online courses) are open access educational courses offered through the medium of the internet. 'Open access' means that they have no mandatory prerequisites, no admissions process and, generally, no cost. Most of these courses are offered at undergraduate or US 'College' level although there are some courses at foundational (ie pre-college) levels.

Is it really free?

Although MOOCs are presented as 'free', there are, of course some costs both direct and indirect. The student will, fairly obviously, need internet access and, ideally, good broadband access. The core of most courses are video lectures and these do not come cheap in terms of download size. A week's lectures will typically come in at 100-200MB. Now that may not sound too bad for those on uncapped broadband access but for those using mobile broadband (and paying by the byte) or using dialup networking in isolated or less developed areas it can be a major issue.

Another potential cost is the purchase of textbooks. Most courses are self-contained supplying all the material needed but some, either through the choice of the course designer or because it is unavoidable, require the student to purchase books either in physical or electronic form. Where this is the case, I'll always try to highlight it. Students may also feel the need to buy a textbook to support their further learning after the end of the course especially as online materials will tend to become unavailable once the course finishes.

So what is this blog about?

I came across MOOCs around Christmas 2012. I had been looking to update my programming skills and in the search for online courses stumbled on edX (about whom much more in future posts). From there I quickly became obsessed and found myself scouring the internet for more opportunities to learn. What I quickly found was that, while there are many courses and many providers, there is relatively little considered opinion published. Much of what exists is often based on the experiences, positive or negative, of a single course and virtually all of it comes solely from a student's point of view.

My aim is to bring together my experiences as a lifelong learner, a commercial trainer and a qualified teacher to bear on the growing area of online education. I will try to offer some comments on the providers and their platforms as well as looking in detail at courses. But, in the spirit of my commitment to lifelong learning, I'll only be reviewing courses which I have personally studied - it would be too easy just to skim through the course catalogues and pontificate based on descriptions.

Who am I?

My professional background is as a radio engineer. I have also been a professional trainer, a producer of interactive training materials and am a qualified High School teacher. I also have professional qualifications in Aerospace Studies (Avionics) and Finance. By choice and necessity I have worked in many different fields and in a number of countries. For the last twenty five years I have been continuously enrolled in some kind of learning and that has only accelerated lately.

Fortunately, I have a tolerant and supportive wife who, although not quite matching my obsessions, has managed to accumulate a doctorate in Medicine and both Bachelors and Masters degrees in Psychology along with a number of more minor specialist awards. I also have a three year old son who reminds me every day of the wonder of learning.

Next time: A quick overview of the major providers.

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