Engaging eLearning: what MOOCs taught me

Engaging eLearning

My first learning experience online was a webinar. Far from eLearning or the realization that what I was doing had anything to do with eLearning, or the growth of a new learning medium, it was a webinar a professor had held to show us how to use a trading platform. The purpose was to be equipped with enough knowledge so we can adequately handle one of the most demanding trading platforms used by traders and financiers all around the world. We were playing with big boy toys!

But who were we?

A group of 10 finance students in their senior year, who each had unique course schedules, and recalling on our conversations, we couldn’t find a time-slot to fit everyone’s schedule so we can get together and be informed at once.

My professor, a true gadget-lover and a real tech enthusiast, always preached the use of social media and the Internet to find resources and be up-to-date with all the news and information a financier (or any young individual, really) needed.

He was the one who apart from using Dropbox and a discussion forum to give out course documents, assignments and have discussions with students, suggested we deal with our trainings using an online conference tool.

Some of us were dumbfounded at the idea, because even though it was 2011 and we all had a smartphone and a laptop at close reach, we hadn’t immersed ourselves in what we thought was the impersonal world of learning online, because we felt that we had all we needed in University.

Although it’s true that eLearning has helped those who can’t afford other forms of education immensely, it also stands that a good percentage of people who take up an online course, are doing so to supplement learning in a physical setting, be that a University or the workplace. Coursera has become synonymous to eLearning because it’s the single largest and most widely spread MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) hub. It partners up with universities to offer courses online, for free. Those courses hold the name of the institution offering the course, which ensures the quality and integrity that will accompany the teaching material, methods and outcomes.

In my four years studying Finance and actively participating in University debating championships all around the world, I became interested in a wide array of topics offered online by other Universities. Why?

1) I had the opportunity to learn something completely out of my field.
2) I had virtual access to some of the most renowned universities of the world.
3) Taking up an extra subject didn’t mean I had to stay longer in University, it meant I had the opportunity to manage when and how much time I would devote in the process of studying that extra credit.

I won’t claim i’ve filtered the best features from the thousands of courses on Coursera or any other MOOC website. I will simply discuss some methods that I found fostered the most effective method of learning, in me; you are welcome to interpret and suggest other methods in the comments section below.

Keep it short, keep it simple
The way MOOCs are structured usually, you get the course schedule beforehand, and the content is revealed week by week.

In some cases, the content will be structured in a way that contradicts the standard education model. You get short videos, sometimes a series of a few short videos that contain the very fundamental of the subject-matter discussed at a given time. What I came to realize was that in eLearning it’s important that the student takes his own time to interpret the data, instead of leaving it for later, as is the inevitable in physical classrooms where not everyone can express their concerns to the full extent (that’s what tutoring and office hours are for, right?).

Keeping the presentation of material short, and allowing time for the student to take it in and then work on short assessments is a more likely method to engage the student who is called to apply something taught on the spot, instead of leaving a mass of material to be read, analyzed and potentially confuse the reader at a later stage.

Provoke thought, ensure action
Learning will always be the result of what the student wants to do and what he actually does. Professors are the people that are called to summon the intellect that we all hold inside and utilize it in a way that allows us to grow, both mentally and spiritually. This makes learning an interactive process. A way for professors to provoke thought and the generation of solutions is to issue open-ended questions. Open-ended questions following a short video are a good way to provoke brainstorming, which is the process of coming up with unfiltered ideas – anything that comes to your head on that matter.
Open-ended questions can also lead to the sharing of ideas between students and professors, especially in the cases that the Learning Management System has a Discussion Forum feature.
In contrast to courses in which the professor dictates and explains without leaving an open space for the sharing of ideas or interpretations, the learners are hostage to the interpretations given by the instructor, without the effort of trying to come up with their own interpretation and solution.

Frequency over volume
Timmy, age 16, is attending a lecture on physics, a subject he was never particularly fond of; his consistent studying allows him to do adequately to get passing grades.

Consider the following two scenarios:

  1. Timmy’s instructor is a successful, strict and well deserving of his honors professor. He mostly talks and presents material if he isn’t solving exercises – and even those – he doesn’t request input to solve.
  2. Timmy’s instructor is the same guy. Instead of talking the whole time, he presents the material in a way that allows time for students to think, asks questions to provoke the generation of alternative solutions, and assigns open-ended questions on issues that seemed most engaging on that day’s lecture.

Now let’s jump back into Timmy’s shoes, and think:
Is Timmy more likely to be engaged if the professor asks a single big-buck question at the end of class, or if he nudges and asks several question throughout the class?

If you ask me about my experiences in school, it’s more than likely that I will discuss schoolmates, and professors. Seldom will I speak of a certain course and its effects on me. I was always the type of person who preferred to prioritize on who taught versus what he/she taught.
By extension, I was always the student that felt that a class well taught was the one in which the professor managed to engaged every single student – not just the front row, and not just the naturally gifted students.
Frequency over volume represents just that: Prioritize over how a small segment of your class has engaged the learner. If you can’t get them to engage to a small part of the material, forcing the whole curricula down their throat without evaluating its effectiveness is likely to ruin all efforts.

To summarize the above:

  • Keep material short and to the point. Evaluate its effectiveness through asking questions.
  • Issue open-ended questions and provoke thinking and coming up with alternative solutions.
  • Engage with your students more often so as to ensure the material is engaging and well taught. Fix issues that may arise – the only way to find out if something is not perfect is to ask!
  • Use discussion forums or other communication mediums to engage your learners and allow them to discuss between themselves.

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