Issue Number 231 April 15, 2018

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, seven free books based on the newsletters are available: Joy of Learning; Validity and Credibility of Information; Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

MOOCs – Models for Learning in the 21st Century:
Part 1

Mary Harrsch
Networks and Management Information Systems (Retired)
University of Oregon College of Education

Introduction to MOOCs

Reading and writing were developed about 5,200 years ago (History World, n.d.). With these new cognitive tools, information could be stored over time and transported over distances. Moreover, these were powerful aids to helping one’s brain solve complex problems. This technology changed our world.

In addition, reading and writing changed education. Prior to that time, education was essentially an apprenticeship activity, learning by doing and by imitating others who were doing. The development of reading and writing led to the development of schools in which a group of students came together to be taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and local history.

The traditional school model of learning in which groups of students were taught by recognized scholars remained only modestly changed for over 5,000 years.

Then, information storage and processing was revolutionized by the invention of the computer, followed by networks of computers, artificial intelligence, and the World Wide Web. These world-changing and education-changing technologies have upended the time-honored traditional school model.

Many courses based on this modern technology are called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The first really large enrollment MOOC was run by Stanford University in 2011 (Moursund, 12/30/2015). In this and the next IAE Newsletter, I will present my MOOC experiences and some of the insights I have gained into this new mode of teaching and learning.

The Sage on the Stage

Much of my learning in higher education was obtained after I became an adult. Family responsibilities required most of my attention during my early adult life, so my enrollment in higher education courses occurred sporadically over a number of years. However, I still remember how eagerly I anticipated one of my first learning experiences in a mid-sized university classroom. I have been passionately interested in archaeology since I was a young girl, so I was confident I would find the content fascinating and hoped to learn a great deal. I walked into the lecture hall and found myself in the midst of hundreds of students, most much younger than I was, who had also enrolled in the course. I found a seat close enough to hear the instructor well and to be able to see any examples he might augment with audio-visual materials.

I knew nothing about my other classmates, and really nothing much about the instructor except that his research was focused on stone-age tribes in the South Pacific. The professor entered and began a lecture that lasted for almost an hour. Whenever the instructor paused and posed a question, hardly anyone except me even raised their hand to respond. After almost an hour of this, I became increasingly hesitant to participate because I did not want to appear to be dominating the discussion. Then it became a challenge to even stay awake.

Sadly, my experience was not unusual, as I found it repeated in other courses I took with other instructors. Passively listening to a "sage on the stage" was not my cup of tea. I succeeded because I was a conscientious student who did all of my homework and knew how to cram for mid-terms and finals. But, I'm not sure I retained much of the information provided, and I certainly found the experience less than optimal. However, eventually I did manage to become an education technologist, although my career path was far from conventional.

Developing My Career in Education Technology

I saw my first personal computer at a trade show in the early 1980s. It was produced by a budding new company founded just a few years earlier by Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne. The first computer I purchased was an Apple IIe. I opted for extra memory when I purchased it so it had a total of 128K (notice I said K not MB!). I also bought a selection of basic software including a word processor, an early spreadsheet application, database software, and a financial accounting package. I paid the rather hefty sum of over $6,000 in total. My husband and I were running a large agribusiness operation, though, and the computer made it possible for me to more easily evaluate different crop planting and marketing scenarios.

There were no classes available to learn how to use the PC or its software, so I spent hours with the manuals learning each software package and how the personal computer itself worked. I was able to find a book on the BASIC programming language and studied it as well.

The next three paragraphs summarize my computer technology career path. Notice how rapidly the field was changing during this time.

I was hired by a multi-state restaurant franchise that used MS-DOS-based PCs. There I made the transition to the new operating system and was able to develop one of the first point-of-sale inventory management systems for them. I also developed an immigration compliance tracking system and a program to analyze employee turnover and retention. Later, I implemented an in-house market research program using software I had found in my analysis of emerging technologies. This program eliminated the need for outside contractors that had cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years.

My next position was as a fiscal manager with the College of Education at the University of Oregon. In addition to managing a budget of more than $20 million dollars annually in academic funds and overseeing the expenditure of millions more in research grants, the Dean explained he wanted me to computerize the college’s accounting functions and, when that was completed, implement a local area network for the entire college.

I accomplished the Dean’s goals within a year, and also integrated the College of Education’s network into the University’s rapidly expanding Wide Area Network. After that came the transition to computers with a graphical interface, the introduction of the World Wide Web, the implementation of streaming services, and limited development of distance education resources. I also evaluated emerging technologies for educational use, including voice recognition and artificial intelligence, developing a prototype for a virtual professor that I hoped would eventually help faculty manage their office hours’ responsibilities (Harrsch, 2005). I have been surprised that it took almost fifteen more years before artificial intelligence finally began to be introduced into the mainstream.

MOOC Learning in My “Second Act”

I retired in 2008, after twenty years of managing the College’s networks and management information systems. I realized I finally had the time to seek out learning experiences in ancient history, a subject I had been passionately interested in since a child, rather than continue to focus on courses that could advance my career. This time, however, with a comfortable home office and a high-speed internet connection, I chose to enroll in online MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). I found this experience to be much more intellectually invigorating than my initial introduction to higher education.

My first MOOC course was Superpowers of the Ancient World: The Near East. It was presented by a team of faculty members at the University of Liverpool through the UK's online FutureLearn program.

FutureLearn is a private company owned by The Open University, an institution of higher education with more than forty years of experience in distance learning and online education (Open University, 2018). FutureLearn launched their first courses in September, 2013, and has served more than seven million people since then.

Other companies offering MOOC courses include Coursera and EdX. Coursera is a U.S.-based online organization offering courses developed by 161 universities and corporate partners in the U.S. and around the world. EdX is an organization founded by Harvard University and MIT in 2012, and now works with 90 global partners.

All of these MOOC providers offer free online classes. A certificate for proof of your successful completion of a course (that requires minimum scores on quizzes and tests) is available for a charge of $50 - $60. I have always purchased a certificate and posted the digital document to my LinkedIn profile. This not only compels me to treat the course as a serious learning endeavor, but also provides evidence that I am a serious scholar. I have published a number of papers on various aspects of ancient culture, particularly Roman civilization, and I wanted my readers to have some assurance that my work is authoritative. I also think it is important that we support these institutions in developing such innovative MOOC learning models.
Why FutureLearn?

Why did I choose FutureLearn instead of one of the U.S.-based organizations? Well, first of all, FutureLearn offered courses exploring ancient history and civilizations that were not offered by the U.S. companies. In addition, there are definite differences in their course structure.

Although I have never personally taken a course from either Coursera or EdX, I found an article in Forbes written by a student of multiple Coursera courses (Shah (12/5/2013). She describes video lectures of 20-to-30 minutes, each accompanied by quizzes and problem sets. She mentions a general student forum where students are encouraged to seek help, mostly from other students.

To me, this sounded like watching non-interactive episodes of The Great Courses followed by a graded test (The Great Courses, n.d.). This did not seem to be much different from a typical college classroom, replacing the “sage on the stage” with a recorded talking head and little to no student interaction. I currently own many Great Courses and have learned a great deal from them by independent study, but I was looking for an experience where I could interact with other students and faculty who would be as passionate about the subject as I am.

Ronny De Winter, a TA for courses on Coursera, states in a Quora post (DeWinter, 12/15/2013):

Extremely diverse starting points for students create a chaotic forum experience [on Coursera]. The scale of enrollment can create huge noise and a very low SNR (signal to noise ratio).

Winter points out that course discussions monitored by diligent teaching assistants are more focused. They can improve clarity by introducing thread titles and bringing attention to particular discussion topics. Off-topic discussions can be deleted.

In contrast, the discussion forums on FutureLearn are keyed to individual course exercises and focus the discussion on a specific topic, eliminating much of the noise created by funneling all questions for all exercises in an entire course into one cacophonous pool.

The FutureLearn Experience

When you enroll in a FutureLearn course, you are encouraged to introduce yourself in a welcome forum, explain your background, and tell why you are interested in the subject. If you find other students particularly interesting, you can "follow" them so their responses to questions posed during the course can easily be isolated and read.

In the first course I took, Superpowers of the Ancient World: The Near East, Dr. Glen Godenho provided a video introduction to himself and the course, then introduced his graduate faculty facilitators who would be actively participating in class discussions. Dr. Godenho also participated in class discussions when time permitted. Most of the faculty facilitators in the UK assisting a professor with a course are graduate students working on their PhDs in a field related to the subject, very similar to Graduate Teaching Fellows in the U.S. Sometimes, a professor may also be assisted by other full professors. In Superpowers of the Ancient World: The Near East we had a segment on ancient music and a full professor of musicology facilitated that segment along with Dr. Godenho.

As I began the course, I found that each course was composed of about 20 exercises per week that chunked information into activities requiring about 20 minutes each for completion. (Being an extrovert, I probably spent more time in discussion with other students than the average, though!) I also spent time exploring suggested optional supplemental content. The total amount of work per week expected on the part of students roughly equates to that in a traditional 3-credit graduate course in which students are expected to work three hours outside of class for each hour in class, for a total of four hours a week per credit.

Exercises included reading components as well as maps, timelines, and short videos or audio interviews with other content experts. Online applications were also included to practice such tasks as deciphering hieroglyphs or cuneiform inscriptions. Some of the exercises also tasked students with identifying modern events or practices that may offer insight into ancient thinking.

Learning from Fellow Students

What I liked best about the class was the online interaction with other students and with faculty facilitators. Each exercise included questions that each student was required to answer based on their understanding of material provided and their individual perceptions or experiences. These answers appeared in an exercise discussion thread similar to the format used with social media applications like Facebook. The FutureLearn system limited responses to 1,200 characters. At first I found this a little frustrating, but eventually realized that it helped me to rethink my answer in my attempt to be as concise as possible.

Students were encouraged to read at least one page of responses from their classmates and to "Like" and/or "Reply" to student passages to express why they agreed or disagreed with them. Because MOOCs often involve thousands of students per class, yielding pages and pages of discussion, you could choose to filter the discussion to view only the comments of people you were following.

The FutureLearn course management system had an internal notification system that constantly notified you of anyone who either "Liked" or “Replied” to any comments you made in your course profile. In addition, you could opt to receive e-mail digests.

The number of likes an answer received also helped instructors to pinpoint the answers most readily accepted as correct by the students. If an answer cluster demonstrated a shared misconception, the instructor could clarify the correct response and explain why the apparent accepted response was inaccurate. The instructor could then decide to supplement the exercise with additional materials and/or to change the exercise content to make the concept more easily understood for future students. This level of community engagement was not described by the previously mentioned Coursera student and, for me, it had a significant impact on my learning and maintaining my interest level.

Dr. Godenho also set up a course Facebook page so we could share information we found outside of class about the ancient Near East that was not directly related to a particular exercise. Some other courses I have taken have used Twitter with a specified hashtag for this, but I find a Facebook group discussion can more easily be followed and is without a character limit.

The Importance of a Class Cohort

Students are told they may progress at their own pace. But the course is designed to be completed over a defined period of weeks. If you complete the course in the defined period, you are assured to have interaction with faculty facilitators and a core group of students, usually those who are comfortable with scheduling their class participation into their daily lives. If you decide to study the material over a longer period of time, you will definitely miss out on the faculty feedback and on most if not all of the more productive peer-to-peer discussions.

I was very fortunate that my "class cohort" was very comfortable with using both the discussion forum and the Facebook group, so we had many lively discussions. The course Facebook group is ongoing, and even though I took the class two years ago I still post items of interest to it.

Overall, I found this type of learning experience to be far superior for me than the passive lecture hall presentations of a traditional higher education setting. But why?

In the next newsletter we will examine psychological factors that influence a student’s learning capacity and attentiveness, and how MOOCs can be designed to optimize the learning experience.

References and Resources

DeWinter, R. (12/15/2013). What are the downsides of Coursera’s discussion forums? Quora. Retrieved from

Harrsch, M. (2005). Extending the learning environment: Virtual professors in education. Retrieved from

History World (n.d.) History of writing. Retrieved from

Moursund, D. (12/30/2015). MOOC enrollment continues to grow. IAE Blog. Retrieved from

Open University (2018). Wikipedia. Retrieved from

Shah, M. (12/5/2013). What is it like to take a Coursera course? Forbes. Retrieved from

The Great Courses (n.d.). Retrieved from

Information Age Education Resources

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Mary Harrsch was the director of Networks and Management Information Systems at the University of Oregon's College of Education for 20 years. Previously, she had worked in the private sector as a technologist, journalist, photographer, and entrepreneur. She retired from the University in 2008 so she could focus on photography, ancient history research, and writing.

Now she travels the world photographing historical art and architecture and makes the images available for free use by teachers, researchers and students as well as others involved in educational publishing (including bloggers and Wikipedia). Her work has been used to illustrate online university courses including MIT's Open Courseware Initiative and educational programming broadcast on PBS, The History Channel and the Canadian Public Broadcasting System. Her still images have been used to illustrate educational texts in both the U.S. and internationally including Argentina and Venezuela. She has also published articles in a variety of national and international periodicals and produces short videos with historical themes.


Blog about technology:

Blog about ancient history:

Image archive on Flickr:

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