Monday, 17 March 2014

To mooc or not to mooc – that was the question

When, puzzled about the value of MOOCs, I carried out a very simple experiment – by enrolling on a MOOC in my capacity both as academic and entrepreneur..

What I now think of as ‘My MOOC’ is an experience that has transformed the way I think about online learning and given me huge insight into the experience of my students. But before I declare myself a convert or a malcontent, I should start with a bit of background.
I head up the Centre for Entrepreneurial at Cambridge Judge Business School and our emerging flagship course is the Post-graduate Diploma in Entrepreneurship ( The PGDE is the only one of its kind (the old adage that you can’t teach entrepreneurship is still alive and well) because we firmly believe that excellent entrepreneurial skills can, and should, be learnt in the academic environment. This kind of learning (in the main, we use entrepreneurs to teach entrepreneurs) can help new venturers to avoid a lot of mistakes, as well as helping established entrepreneurs to turn around or enhance their existing business.
As our clientele for this course are necessarily an international bunch, we offer most of the Cambridge PGDE programme online, to allow them to do it from wherever they are in the world and to continue to run their business while they study. Since I did my own education long before all this sophisticated online learning, I have often pondered what the experience is like – especially for a busy entrepreneur (as I have been myself). When MOOCs came along, I pondered even more about the efficacy of online learning until at last, looking for something to do during a recent sabbatical, I decided to find out what all the fuss is about and enrolled on one myself.
At first, enticed by the thought of performing really well on something I knew lots about, I considered the range of excellent courses on offer from big US Universities on topics like innovation, entrepreneurship, strategy and leadership. But then it occurred to me that my experiment really called for me to go out on a limb and try a subject completely foreign to me. Why? Because if you are a manager or a technology specialist or a member of a family business – what must it feel like to enrol on a course on entrepreneurship? As there is only this one PGDE on offer – it must feel entirely alien at first to the people enrolling on it from around the globe.  So I chose something that felt alien to me – a 6 week MOOC from the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham - on Hamlet! It’s on the platform.
To the extreme hilarity of my children, who instantly offered me Letts notes and patronised me mercilessly with offers of help, I embarked on something I had never read and which is positioned in the minds of most non-arts people as a secondary school bit of torture.  I dutifully prepared by buying the play and reading it – when the ensuing headache would let me!  Hamlet is one of the longest plays and getting into it was tough.  However, Week 1 on my MOOC passed with great excitement until I reached the first multiple-choice quiz.
This was a terrifying moment when I realised that I absolutely had to get it right or crash and burn in front of my hawk-eyed offspring, who were circling like cute vultures, waiting for me to fail. Luckily, I managed a five out of five for the test and progressed into the following weeks. More and more drawn in, I threw away the aspirin and learnt, enthralled, about the play, its context, the actors, nuances of interpretation, the never-ending centuries’ old debates about Hamlet and his motives. I especially enjoyed how it it took me off on fascinating tangents, like diving into Youtube where there are some wonderful ‘to be or not to be’ speeches.
The most serious challenge posed along the way was a peer reviewed 500-word article.  It took a while to break through the blank page on a subject I had never written on, but the ‘peers’ were gentle on me and it proved one of the most rewarding things I did. The many quizzes were easy enough – but I needed the multiple attempts the programme offered!
 What did I take away from the MOOC?  It was like opening presents at Christmas as each module unfolded and I educated myself about a fascinating subject far from my usual sphere. This is one of the nice things about online learning – the sense of achievement as you effectively motivate and educate yourself. It also gave me a whole new topic for dinner conversations!
As for MOOCs – their time has come and academic Institutions had better embrace them.  We are still on a hype cycle with MOOCs and their demise is already being predicted, with articles about how severe the drop-out rate is. I don’t know what the drop-out rate was on my Hamlet MOOC – But I know I’m sold. The key things I loved were the fabulous content with excellent delivery; the easy navigation; the good quality discussions on the platform – i.e. a good peer group - and, at 6 weeks, it was just the right length.
Downsides? There is still work to be done on the discussion forum. I am not convinced that the current platform makes this easy; you have to scroll through hundreds of participants or you end up only seeing the top 5- 10 posts and might miss an excellent post that’s too far down. Some of the quiz questions and the written assignment came as surprises – there were a few complaints about that. But, even with glitches, it was already hundreds of times better than not having access to some of the top people on Shakespeare, helping you to navigate a course on Hamlet, and without having to go anywhere or do anything other than sit in my lounge in my slippers. 
And so the moral of the story is – MOOCs work if they offer excellent, well-considered content, access to some of the top minds on the subject, a high quality peer group and a well-designed platform. If these fundamentals are in place, students will forgive stray errors. Perhaps in the end in was no surprise to find that, no matter what the delivery mechanism - whether it’s books or MOOCs -  content is still king. After all, it’s what has been keeping a weird play about a neurotic Prince set in Denmark consistently in the top most read and watched for four centuries.
That Will Shakespeare – he knew a thing or two about keeping an audience on line.