[Editor’s note: This was originally posted on Digital Learning Now’s Blog.]
I’m three weeks into taking the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), “Wiretaps to Big Data: Privacy and Surveillance in the Age of Interconnection.” The basic format reminds me of my high school courses. The course is separated into 10 lessons, which are split into modules. Each lesson starts with an ungraded pre-test followed by required readings (two to four articles) that provide background for the upcoming lesson. The course’s instructor, Professor Wicker, conducts a series of video lectures ranging from five to fifteen minutes. Multiple-choice questions during the lectures consistently check comprehension and keep me engaged with the material. They are less focused on “testing,” and more focused on functioning as quick check-ins throughout the course. Lectures are often accompanied by brief synopses or other links to articles and papers that accompany the lessons—very similar to the articles and notes that were provided by my high school teachers.
While the format is similar to a high school course, the experience is entirely different. I don’t have homework in the traditional sense—I can pick and choose when I want to work—and because this is an archived MOOC, I don’t have classmates. My teacher is knowledgeable and passionate about the subject, but I have no personal relationship with him. Because this MOOC isn’t being run in real time, while content coverage and reinforcement feel similar, class discussions and question-and-answer sessions are missing.
I have seen two distinctions between the “feel” of a MOOC and that of a traditional classroom. First, the essential building blocks for accruing knowledge have not changed in this format. I am still reading, listening, and applying myself in new ways. Just as in a classroom, the teacher is using multiple different techniques to add perspective. One lecture on cellular networks included a video of Professor Wicker writing notes on a whiteboard, while another included a YouTube video to introduce a new concept to students.
Second, the physical aspects of taking the MOOC offer an environment far different from the one I am used to in high school. On edX—the MOOC platform’s website—I am away from the pressures of the classroom and am free to learn at my own pace. There are no assignments to worry about, no due dates, no upcoming tests, and no competitive classmates to distract me from my priority—learning. Instead of asking myself (or my teacher), “Could this be on the test?,” I am free to focus on the ideas, concepts, facts, or examples that I find interesting. Rather than being forced to hang onto every word of every lecture, I can gain what I want from the course rather than what a teacher wants me to learn.
In comparing both the makeup and experience of taking a MOOC, I found that the familiarity of its format has helped me feel comfortable with the material. The casual nature of the MOOC has allowed me to enjoy the experience without outside pressures that can manifest in a traditional environment. It is interesting to note how different it feels to actually be taking a MOOC. I will continue to monitor both the structure and experience of the course as I engage in more difficult and time-consuming material, and I am curious to see if my sentiments change by the end of the course.
Jake Cohen is a recent high school graduate who will be attending the University of Pennsylvania’s College of Arts and Sciences this fall. He is planning on studying International Relations and History. Jake is an avid golfer, reader, and New England Patriots fan.