About two weeks ago I signed up to my first MOOC, partly because the topic was interesting (corpus linguistics) and partly just to experiment with some self directed e-learning and see how I got on. The course is now three weeks old, and I have done week one, and I even did that late. If I’m honest I’m not sure if I will get round to catching up with week 2, or indeed get going with week 3. I might do, but I’m not confident!

Why not? What are the barriers? It’s not like I’m averse to a bit of extra-curricular, self focussed work: what am I doing now but that? Nor was to the subject, the content, or the delivery: the lectures were neat, short and well delivered, the articles and reading very interesting indeed, and generally all for the good. The interface was straightforward and generally intuitive, once I’d worked out how to turn on the comments while watching the videos. So what was it?

The obvious one is going to be time. I work two evenings, (and spend the mornings if those days looking after my children) and so only have three evenings a week, and I am pretty obsessive about leaving weekends generally sacrosanct. I rarely blog or tweet about work at the weekends, and I try to make sure that work related things are over and done with by then. And this does count as work, in that regard. The remaining evenings are given over to dinner and putting children to bed, that sort of thing, which gives me an hour or two after 8pm during which time my diurnal rhythms are saying “make like a vegetable”. I am a morning person, in that regard and dip between 3pm and 6pm, and between 8.30pm and, well, 5am. So time is a factor, but if I wanted to I could force myself to be better and do more.

So what else is there? Motivation has to be a factor. There’s no formal certification, so I’m just doing it out of interest, and, to be fair, a very academic interest, rather than a practical one. Rather cynically I think I have been infected by the “learning is about getting a qualification” mentality that dominates FE in the UK: a mentality brought on by results driven, focussing on observable, measurable learning, and the general slashing of funding, and the usual somewhat patronising view of “learning for leisure” courses. The concept of learning for pleasure and interest was presumably always seen as a nice middle class activity for those with spare time and money: now, owing to funding cuts and rising fees, that is exactly what it is.

Anyway, bitching aside, my motivation, then, is clearly not strong enough to carry me through on its own. However, I don’t think that’s all there is to it.

The mode of delivery has to have something to do with it. I think if someone tied me into a classroom for three hours a week, I would be much more engaged with it. Perhaps this is because of my own learning background which sees classroom time and face to face teacher contact as part of learning. Indeed, my own learning at university was affected by this: left to my own devices to study and manage my own learning I became atrociously lazy. Admittedly I already was a lazy learner: as a young person I relied on native intelligence and a good memory for stuff, rather than actually working. Face to face time forces you to switch on that brain for a bit: indeed most of the best learning experiences I have had involved me getting stuff from classroom based activities.

Go on, say it. You know you want to. “But you’re not a ‘digital native’ so you aren’t used to this kind of learning.” Klaxon. Warning bell. Aroogah aroogah! I’m sorry, no, that’s not true. Or rather the concept of the digital native and all that jazz is not true. There’s a common argument trotted out by ed-tech people and others with a vested interest in promoting educational technology, on a fairly regular basis that if you got a teacher from 50 years ago and brought them into a modern classroom they wouldn’t notice the difference. Other professions have been transformed by technology: look at medicine, look at aeronautics, look at science, but you teachers lumbering on in your classrooms with your desks, and “pens”, god that’s like sooooo 1940s, man.

I hate this argument. It’s a crap argument for one. Because most of the fields education gets compared to were always highly technologised. Medicine has been as much about developing technology to support health as it has been about technique. And why not compare education to law, for example. That has changed arguably even less than education. In the UK, barristers still wear wigs like an 18th century baronet, for crying out loud. The basic processes in law are essentially unchanged, but what has changed has been the body of knowledge, style, technique and learning which supports it. The same goes for education. Law and education rely on human interaction as the essential component, and the human speech organs, the primary technology to support human interaction, evolved millions of years ago, and are changing very slowly indeed. Arguably technology distances this interaction at the same time as bringing it together: yes, I can communicate very excitingly with someone in Korea in the middle of a lesson, which is actually awesome, but at the same time watching a video of a lecture is distancing because I can pause it to make a cup of tea, lose the thread, g, come back in again and try to follow but then something else occurs to me, so I go look that up online and again lose the thread, or maybe I have a look on Twitter or Facebook, and get distracted that way. But I don’t want to go back to the beginning because I can remember the gist, and I get the main points. Some of these points can also be benefits, like being able to pause and go off and find the article or reference, rather than actually make a note and look it up later, or using Twitter as a discussion area, but these are also still distractions. When I think tout this as a teacher, I find myself thinking that if someone isn’t that interested in the class they are attending, it’s a million times easier not to watch a video, or not to read a required book or paper, than it it is not to come to a class.

Anyway. Back to the MOOC. Another issue was the nature of the online discussion and comments. My first experience of this was a little daunting, with lots of well read people making academic references which I had no idea about or indeed access to. One of the challenges for any teacher is trying to bring in those students hiding at the back (that was me, and still is, by the way) for whatever reason (crippling shyness for me). This is nigh on impossible in something like a MOOC. I don’t blame the moderators of the online discussion at all: if someone doesn’t make themselves present by participating actively in the first instance, then it’s impossible to notice them. Unlike in the classroom where the big lad at the back is clearly there but hasn’t spoken for the last 25 minutes. So there are classroom management issues to be aware of here, which would apply to online learning of any sort. How do ensure participation and differentiate effectively? I don’t know the answer to that. It can’t just be logging who accesses and when, then giving them a telling off for not doing it. Not to mention the obvious flaw for online learning, especially for learners from less than brilliant financial backgrounds, where learners may not have access to the requisite technology and technology skills full stop.

So, will I be continuing? I’m going to have a go at week three this evening, hoping I can get away with skipping week 2. I’ll probably stay off the online discussions in case I say something and get the response “we did that last week” but I’ll have a go. I can’t do much more than that!



  1. Thanks for your thoughts on the corpus MOOC, Sam. I’m still trying to finish week one! I’ve had similar thoughts and feelings and am glad I’m not alone. I agree with you in that face to face ‘real’ time is so important for inclusivity. To encourage participation from all learners is difficult in a classroom, but online asynchronous courses makes it even harder for moderators. I’ve got a bit more time now and am going to continue from where I left off. Hopefully see you there!

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