I am a MOOC dropout

Let me confess. Yes, I am among the majority who have signed up for a MOOC and didn’t have the determination/ time/ interest to stay on and complete the course. That’s why the carcinogenic molecule (or is it a splinter of graphene?) that is the icon of Coursera’s “Introduction to Physical Chemistry” is hanging over my notes like an angry rain cloud.

mooc dtced


Massive Open Online Courses are one of the most talked-about recent developments in universities. Are MOOCs the future of higher education? Will they put us all out of our jobs? Nothing but hype? I wanted to see for myself. In the words of a colleague, I signed up to see what it’s like being a MOOC student, and to steal their best ideas.

Being a part-time distance learner on a “proper” credit-bearing, award-winning MSc course means that it would have been difficult for me to devote a lot of time to additional online learning, so it was always going to be more skimming than deep diving. I decided to have a look at one of the first four MOOCs offered by colleagues at the University of Manchester. As an undergraduate I studied Physical Chemistry for four semesters, and I developed a grudging fondness for the subject- it was all equations and calculating stuff I didn’t much care about with those equations, but the bigger picture made sense and everything came together in a satisfying way. Would my colleagues pull off an inspiring online course in what can be an extraordinarily dry subject? If it can be done for Physical Chemistry, anything is possible. (This comment of mine on the “Introduce yourself” discussion board won the approval of the course organiser!) On the lookout for courses closer to my own subject, I found “Introduction to Biology- The Secret of Life” from MIT and “The Chemistry of Life” from Kyoto, both hosted by EdX.

Rather than the actual content, it was the ideas for online pedagogy that interested me. What would take the place of 50 minute lectures? How would assessment and feedback work? Is there contact with staff? And considering that experimental lab work –the experience of actually doing science rather than just hearing about it- is central to our on-site degree programmes, what would happen instead in cyberspace?

In the event, while there was little mindblowing innovation, I did take away many good ideas. All three courses unsurprisingly had video lectures, typically between 5 and 15 minutes long. Some were narrated PowerPoints that must have come straight from the original lecture, some were Khan Academy style. Eric Lander, human genome pioneer and high-profile MIT professor, was filmed delivering “Introduction to Biology” to what must have been a select studio audience –surely more than 50 MIT students normally take this introductory class? Motonari Uesugi of Kyoto University talked straight to camera about “The chemistry of Life” in front of a SMART Board. I can’t say it made a huge difference; all lectures were clearly very well planned and delivered enthusiastically. With Lander’s extraordinary charisma and energy, the “live” experience certainly added to the enjoyment of watching the videos. I hadn’t expected to get inspiration from a MOOC for improving my delivery of traditional lectures!

One feature of the EdX courses that I liked a lot was the navigation through a series of alternating short video lectures and two-question self-test quizzes. “Introduction to Physical Chemistry” had longer self-tests after between five and ten short lectures. Here, the volume and complexity of didactic teaching made the whole course feel surprisingly conventional; a real throwback to my undergraduate days when formula after formula and definition after definition fell from the heavens. The majority of self-tests in all courses were multiple-choice, which makes sense because it offers instant feedback. The two EdX courses also had drag-and-drop questions and quite a number of interesting interactive plug-ins for manipulating molecular structures. However, in the biology course the later bits on genetics are largely MCQ. The most innovative assessments were used in the “Chemistry of Life course”: several peer-reviewed exercises where students were asked to e.g. come up with a research project proposal. These exercises came with very detailed and useful guidance for the peer reviewers. The most charming and original of these tasks was to re-draw a drug structure and “read” it like a star constellation (a “drug constellation”) or a molecular Rorschach test: this structure looks like a child with a balloon; the drug will make the patient cheerful like a child. Only the Japanese could come up with that. “The chemistry of life” emphasises the need for innovation and originality in science, and this task hits the spot in a playful way.

I was too late to participate in those exercises and so unfortunately could not see what students came up with, but peer reviewing seems a valid answer to the dilemma of the enormous student:staff ratios on MOOCs.

It is difficult to assess how many participants there were on the courses; the “Introduce yourself” forums had around 150 posts for Physical Chemistry and around 1100 for Introduction to Biology. Clearly there were many more students on the course who never posted anything, and the number of actual scientific discussions was very limited. In Physical Chemistry, the Professors and PhD students were astonishingly engaged in the forums, both for science and banter (by far the most lively thread was “Scientific Songs”), and this was very much appreciated by the core of most dedicated participants.

Another feature of Physical Chemistry was “lab work”. Not quite as hands on as in this physics MOOC, but still- a demo experiment was filmed and participants had to read changes in temperature or gas volume over time from the screen. These readings needed plotting so that physical constants could be calculated. Another experiment involved a Flash simulation of a spectrometer that allowed a reading of hydrogen emission wavelengths. Good experiments with excellent instructions. I think science can’t be taught without at least some experience of the scientific process of experimentation because equations and constants do not, in fact, fall from the heavens. They are the fruit of hard work.

Judging from the introductory discussion posts, MOOCs largely reach an audience of current (or soon-to-be) university students and older graduates who want to branch out or tap into nostalgia like me. Not quite a revolution in HE there. Nor did I see any truly novel pedagogy (except perhaps the creative “Drug constellations” task with its own Flickr site). But maybe I’d need to take part in a cMOOC for that. Still, I’ve learned a great deal and found these MOOCs a treasure-trove of neat ideas for the online part of my own teaching. I am cautiously excited about MOOCs.


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