5 Lessons Learned From Taking a MOOC

MOOC is an acronym for massive open online course. They have emerged over the past few years as a way to provide open education via the web. Typically, a MOOC is free and doesn’t offer credit. Some MOOCs will provide a certificate of completion for a nominal fee.

When I first heard about MOOCs, I thought this was a terrific concept. I can take a class at Harvard, which I normally wouldn’t have access to because I live thousands of miles away. I could learn from a well-known professor at Stanford. In fact, I could piece together the best of the best from universities all over the globe and create my own professional development plan.

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Then I started reading about the challenges MOOCs were having with individuals not finishing courses and delivering large-scale coursework. It made me wonder, are MOOCs everything they’re promising? So I decided to take one. Actually, I ended up taking three. Admittedly, I dropped out of the first two.

I took three very different courses. All of the topics were interesting to me. I didn’t just sign up for any course. I signed up for courses from which I genuinely wanted to learn something. And they weren’t subjects I was already proficient in. I could see someone getting bored and dropping out of a MOOC in a subject that they already have a depth of experience. Looking back, I’m kinda glad things turned out the way they did because it made me realize a few things about MOOCs:

  1. MOOCs offer a tremendous amount of variety. If you’re a lifelong learner, MOOCs have something for you. There are classes ranging from Calculus to How to Succeed in College to the Fundamentals of Human Nutrition – and everything in between. When you take a MOOC, it’s not like a virtual class. You get a timeframe (let’s say a week) to review the class materials. So it’s very conducive to busy work or personal schedules.
  2. MOOCs need to create a stronger WIIFM. When I was in college, I took classes because I had to in order to complete my degree. With a MOOC, I’m taking a class because I just want to. Course descriptions need to do a better job of selling what’s in it for me and what will happen in the course. One MOOC actually did a video explaining what would take place, including who they had lined up for guest instructors. It was fun to watch.
  3. Instructors should align examples with the audience. Speaking of WIIFM, I noticed in some courses the examples were clearly designed for a student population. Others were for individuals who had some work experience. MOOCs will need to either identify their intended audience in the course description or be prepared to offer examples that appeal to a wider variety of participants.
  4. Sending little reminders is a good thing. I was amazed at the MOOCs that sent no reminders. For one course, I signed up on a waiting list to be informed when the class was going to start. I read about the start of the course on a blog – no notification from the university. The MOOC had my email. This is one of those times when they should use it. For an online course…email communication comes with the territory.
  5. Delivery is different for online courses. In an online course, visuals and voices matter. One MOOC was conducted with totally black and white slides, no images. And the professor never showed his face. Only his voice and it was monotone. Another MOOC used a variety of methods including video, PowerPoint, etc. The materials were in color and, instead of one instructor, they had a team of three. Guess which one was easier to engage with? Exactly!

The reason I’m sharing my lessons learned is because, if you’re looking at taking a MOOC, these are some things to possibly consider. FYI – The MOOC that I didn’t drop out of was one recommended by a colleague. It reminded me of what I did back in college. I would get recommendations from my friends on the best instructors to take for certain subjects. So I guess the more things change, the more things stay the same.

Image courtesy of HR Bartender


  1. says

    Thanks Sharyln, really great review of MOOCs – I just tweeted this. It definitely makes me want to try them out (again). I’ll particularly ensure I bear in mind point #2 – previously I saw a load of great courses and signed up to quite a few. Would have been much better to focus on one and complete it!!

    All the best,


  2. says

    Very true
    I think MOOC if used properly and if engaged well, can be a very effective learning tool. on my blog too, I have suggested few MOOC
    few of them are:

    However, I disagree of the point no 5. I have attended few MOOC where lecturers are well seen, they give presentations and in some cases there is participatory learning too.

    The biggest problem I see is engagement
    Govind recently posted..Lecture presentation of Wisdom of Chanakya’s for HR at Pune on 27th August 2014