The “M” in MOOC shouldn’t stand for “Maddening”

Mad man pulling his hair out in Frustration

There was a post in Read/Write yesterday entitled “I failed my online course – but learned a lot about Education”: full story here. The short version is that on her Massive Open Online Course, the instructor had delegated out the marking of essays to fellow students on the course, 4/5 of which had unjustifiably marked an essay of hers below the pass mark. With that, the chance of completing the course successfully evaporated, and she left it.

Talking to companies that run these courses to over a thousand (sometimes over 100,000) participants, she cites a statistic that only 6.8% of those registering make it through to the end of the course. That said, my own personal exposure to these things comes down to a number of factors:

  1. If the course is inexpensive or free, there will be a significant drop between the number of registrants and the number of people who even invoke the first lesson. Charges (or availability of an otherwise unobtainable useful skill) will dictate a position in each persons time priorities.
  2. The course must go through a worked example of a task before expecting participants to have the skills to complete a test.
  3. Subjective or Ambiguous answers demotivate people and should be avoided at all costs. Further, course professors or assistants should be active on associated forums to ensure students aren’t frustrated by omissions in the course material. You keep students engaged and have some pointers on how to improve the course next time it’s run.
  4. Above all, participants need to have a sense that they are learning something which they can later apply, and any tests that prove that do add weight to their willingness to plough on.
  5. The final test is meaty, aspirational (at least when the course has started) and proves that the certificate at the end is a worthwhile accomplishment to be personally proud of, and for your peers to respect.

I did two courses on MongoDB a year ago, one “MongoDB for Python Programmers”, the other “MongoDB for DBAs” (that’s Database Administrators for those not familiar with the acronym). Their churn waterfall looked to be much less dramatic than the 6.8% completion rate reported in the post; they started with 6,600 and 6,400 registrants respectively in the courses I participated in, and appear to get completion rates in the scale of 19-24% from then and ever since. Hence a lot of people out there with skills to evangelise and use their software.

The only time any of the above hit me was on Week 2 of the Programmers course, which said on the prerequisites that you didn’t need to have experience in Python to complete the course – given it is easy to learn. In the event, we were asked to write a Python program from scratch to perform some queries on a provided dataset – but before any code that did any interaction with a MongoDB database had been shown.

Besides building loop constructs in Python, the biggest gap was how the namespace of variables in Python mapped onto field names within MongoDB. After several frustrating hours, I put an appeal on the course forum for just one small example that showed how things interacted – and duly received a small example the next morning. Armed with that, I wrote my code, found it came out with one of the multiple choice answers, and all done.

I ended up getting 100% passes with distinction in both courses, and could routinely show a database built, sharded and replicated across several running instances on my Mac. The very sort of thing you’d have to provide in a work setting, having had zero experience of NoSQL databases when the course had started 7 weeks earlier. If you are interested in how they set their courses up, there’s plenty of meat to chew at their Education Blog.

MongoDB for Developers Course CertificateMongoDB for DBAs Course Certificate

I did register for a Mobile Web Engineering Course with iversity but gave that up 2 weeks in. This was the first course i’d attended where fellow students marked my work (and me them – had to mark 7 other students work each week). The downfall there was vague questions on exercises that weren’t covered in the course materials, and where nuances were only outlined in lectures given in German. Having found fellow students were virtually universally confused, an absence of explanation from the course professors or assistants to our cries for guidance, and everyone appearing to spend inordinate, frustrating hours trying to reverse engineer what the answers requested should look like, I started thinking. What have I learnt so far?

Answer: How to deploy a virtual machine on my Mac. How to get German language Firefox running in English. What a basic HTML5/Css3 mobile template looked like. And that i’d spent 6 hours or so getting frustrated trying to reverse engineer the JavaScript calls from a German language Courseware Authoring System, without any idea of what level of detail from the function calling hierarchy was needed for a correct answer in our test. In summary, a lot of work that reading a book could have covered in the first few pages. With that, I completed my assignment that week as best I could, marked the 7 other students as per my commitments that week, and once done, deregistered from the course. I’ve bought some O’Reilly books instead to cover Mobile App Development, so am sure i’ll have a body of expertise to build from soon.

Next week I will be starting the Google “Making Sense of Data” course which looks very impressive and should improve some of analytics and display skills. Really looking forward to it. And given the right content, well engineered like the MongoDB courses, i’m sure Massively Open Online Courses will continue to enhance the skills of people, like me, who are keen to keep learning.

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