MOOCs: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

MOOCs: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By Pat Bowden, published November 14, 2017.

Reader Steve Mackay asked: “It would be interesting for you to post your background and raison d’être for doing so many MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses). And indicating the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Thanks for the question, Steve. Perhaps you were wondering what courses I thought were “good”, “bad”, or “ugly”, but I’m actually going to focus my answer more on good, bad and ugly aspects of online learning.

A Lifelong Learner

Why have I done so many MOOCs? The simple answer is that I enjoy them. Sure beats housework!

After pondering just why I enjoy them, I came up with the realization that I have always enjoyed finding out things. Space. Nature. Why the world is the way it is. As a child, I read everything I could get my hands on: stories, “How and Why” books, cereal boxes, you name it. Although I did well at school, I was less than enthusiastic about structured study and preferred to read about subjects that interested me.

Another passion was music. I loved music lessons and playing my guitar.

When I finished high school many years ago, I was keen to join the workforce and earn my own money. I’d seen my older sister study for four years at university only to start a family afterwards. I wanted to spend some money and enjoy life without constant study.

With my interest in science, I took a job in a laboratory, studying wood structure. The job as a trainee Laboratory Technician required that I complete a part-time certificate course in Biological Laboratory Techniques. Hmmm, I couldn’t get away from study, but at least the part-time format meant I could be at work without feeling I should be studying all day and all night. Luckily, I found the certificate course generally interesting and enjoyable without too much stress.

Around five years later, I was married and expecting my first child. I left the paid workforce without regret, raising four children over the years. I returned to paid work after a 20 year break to help support our children when they had to move away from home to pursue tertiary education.

Even while away from paid work, I spent many hours with a voluntary community group, firstly being trained as a counsellor, then later helping train new counsellors. I also completed a diploma in guitar teaching. More learning, although I didn’t see it as such. I was following my passions.

The Good

Five years ago, I retired from the paid workforce. I planned to spend my retirement gardening and making craft projects. Instead, my husband told me about an astronomy course on Coursera. Little did he know what it would lead to. Even though I was totally out of my depth with the complex physics and calculations, I enjoyed watching the videos once I decided it didn’t matter if I failed the course. I also discovered other interesting free courses such as “Computers 101” and “Nutrition for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention”.

Soon the garden was back to its usual neglected state as I spent my days in front of the computer. This was my niche! Watching videos, making notes, answering quiz questions, sometimes researching and writing essays. Admittedly, I have tended to shy away from heavy-duty courses such as computer programming, although I’ve wondered if I should try one just to see if I can do it.

The Bad

Finding my niche had its bad side. If you take a look at my List of Completed Courses, you will see that I have sometimes enrolled in multiple courses at the same time. Dealing with my MOOC obsession has been challenging from time to time. That was in the days before widespread soft deadlines, multiple runs, or self-paced courses. Each week’s videos were released at a set time, with usually seven to ten days to complete the work. If you missed the current session, there was no guarantee that the course would be run again.

Luckily, ongoing access to courses has improved in the last year or two, which has caused a different set of problems.

The Ugly

My course enrollment pages are positively ugly, with growing lists of uncompleted courses.

Whereas before I would usually (unfortunately, not always) think carefully before committing to a course, now I am more inclined to enrol. It’s tempting to think “I’ll do that one soon, so I might as well enrol now.” With my ambition to finish 100 courses, I now have several uncompleted courses on each of my Coursera, edX and FutureLearn pages. Some, I haven’t even started yet, although I signed up several weeks ago. I’m torn between wanting to keep my eye on them and needing to declutter my “to do” list.

Some of my Favourite Courses

While I have enjoyed a wide range of courses, some have stood out:

A Final Thought

We need to re-evaluate our goals from time to time. When I first looked at Coursera, I had no idea that five years later I would be writing a weekly blog, have completed almost 90 online courses, and begun writing a book on the topic. Life sometimes takes us in unexpected directions.