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MOOCs - lifelong learning made easy

University of Bath ArticleEnglish is a fascinating language. Bill Bryson in his book The Mother Tongue explains that English favours crisp truncations with many words coming from acronyms. Many of us have probably only known the word laser without knowing its etymology. Laser began as the acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. Another word, MOOC, introduced as an acronym for massive open online course in 2008 describes a model for delivering online content to any person who wishes access to learning. The New York Times named 2012 the year of the MOOC. MOOCs are a new and cool way to add some structure to lifelong learning. The price is right, free in many cases, you pay only if you wish to have a certificate or gain credits towards a degree. This is my experience with a MOOC.

I was keeping an eye on the courses being offered by various MOOC providers knowing that I would find one both of great interest to me and on a topic that I would like to blog. In December of 2014, I discovered an upcoming course from FutureLearn called Inside Cancer: How Genes Influence Cancer Development presented by the University of Bath. The course ran from March 2 to April 12. Several days prior to the course, I was able to download a pdf text for the course. Bios were provided for the presenters, 10 scientists, all leading researchers and clinical oncologists in the field.

Each week about 15 tasks needed to be completed. There was a mixing of one page articles interspersed with professionally produced video presentations. Each of the videos also had downloadable pdf transcripts and slides used by presenters. As with well designed distance education courses of the past, this e-learning course had a series of icons to help focus the learner on the learning activities and the progress being made through the tasks. Towards the end of each of the week’s list of activities there was an online multiple choice quiz. Points given for correct answers were reduced as hints were needed. Questions tended to be low level recall knowledge sometimes devolving into complete trivia. They did however act to focus on what the course designers deemed important for the week’s collective lesson. It was possible to work ahead of schedule, but in doing so I missed the end of week video presentations which acted as a wrap. The structure of the course however made it easy to return to any segment for a refresher or to complete missed portions.

FutureLearn emphasises that learning from conversations is an important part of their approach. Comment sections were located at the end of each of the activities, plus a major discussion was one of the end of week activities. At the beginning I looked forward to this opportunity as I had been told by another FutureLearn student that there was as much to learn from discussion as from the activities themselves. My experience was that the comment section seemed to be dominated by a small number of persons with questionable credentials. A self-described nutritionist, a yogic flyer and an advocate for homeopathy seemed to be regular and highly rated commenters on this course. I am sure there were people who knew much more about both cancer and genetics enrolled in this course but they didn't comment or respond to some of the more outrageous statements appearing in the comments section. Perhaps the code of conduct on comments kept all of us too polite. There was also a two week string of discussion between two people arguing over which one of their Doctor daughters knew more about cancer. Thankfully, towards the end of the course, some of the instructors started moderating the comments and their wise statements greatly increased the level of discussion and brought in a much higher level of conversation.

On the positive side the cancer model presented throughout the course seemed totally up to date as one might expect from this team of researchers. At least twice during the course there were live hangouts/video presentations providing mini-lectures followed by question and answer sessions where online participants could send in questions via twitter.

I look forward to participating in upcoming FutureLearn courses on topics of interest to me. These are excellent vehicles for a lifelong learner.

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MOOCs - lifelong learning made easy

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