Voices

How to make the best use of a massive open online course

By David Gatrell

27 July 2015 - 14:41

Want to get the most out of a massive open online course? The British Council's David Gatrell explains how.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) bring together huge numbers of individuals from around the world to learn through video tutorials, activities and discussions. Recently, close to half a million learners from 153 counties joined the British Council’s Understanding IELTS course, believed to be the world’s biggest ever MOOC! Perhaps you were one of them?

Part of the appeal of MOOCs is their openness: participants are not constrained by time or physical location, and these courses are available to anyone, usually for free, regardless of their software set-up, experience or level of educational achievement.

However, the sheer size of MOOCs can be overwhelming, making it difficult for participants to get the most out of course content or discussions. It can also be hard to stay self-motivated. This, combined with the low level of commitment required, often results in high drop-out rates.

So how can you stay on track and get the most out of your course?

Make it personal

Setting your own learning goals before you start your MOOC is crucial to a rich and successful learning experience. Think about why you’re doing it. Is it to develop the skills you need for a current or future job? Look at the course objectives. Which of them seem relevant to your own needs? Use these to create personal learning objectives for your course. Once you begin studying, use your goals to guide you, and keep a record of how and when you achieve them.

Make a commitment and stick to it

It’s really important to commit to a certain number of hours per week for your MOOC. Quite often, courses will recommend how many hours to aim for, but your own time commitment will depend on the goals you've set. Once you've established a number of hours per week, it can be challenging to keep to this commitment. It can help if you set aside specific times each week for the course, choosing which activities to focus on and when.

For example, you may want to spend 15 minutes every other day taking part in discussions, half an hour each week reading articles that particularly interest you, and an hour attending a live session or watching the recording. The trick here is to study ‘little and often’ throughout the week instead of leaving everything for one mammoth session. If you do fall behind one week, you can always pick things up with a new topic the following week and return to any topics you missed, but it's always best to spread out your learning.

Find your way around

Early on in your MOOC, work out where everything is and how to navigate the platform. Find the course materials, useful links, and times of the live sessions you want to participate in. Getting to know the website can also help you manage the massive amount of content out there. For example, it should be possible to filter discussions by 'most popular'. You can also ‘follow’ learners with similar interests to you, or get a daily email digest showing replies to your posts or posts by people you’re following.

Get to know people and help them get to know you

One of the best ways to stay motivated and achieve your personal learning objectives is to connect with other learners on your MOOC. Start by making sure people can find you. Upload a friendly profile picture, write a brief and interesting text to go with it and, if you have one, add a link to your Facebook group, Twitter handle or blog. Next, meet like-minded participants by ‘liking’ or replying to posts that interest you, starting your own discussions, or helping out when someone has questions about a new concept.

Find out more about the people involved in each discussion and connect with them on or off the MOOC platform. In any form of online communication, it goes without saying that you should treat people with the same respect you’d treat them with in person. Remember, too, to be concise – keeping your posts short and to the point (but not abrupt) makes it more likely other people will read them.

Be active

MOOCs might be massive, but they shouldn't be passive. Learning within this type of online environment involves actively finding and creating knowledge. There are plenty of ways you can do this. Besides posting and responding to questions in discussions, you could also use social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, or your blog to share reflections on the course content and how it is helping you achieve your personal learning goals.

Reflections don’t have to be text-based – why not take a photo, create a mind map, or make an audio or video recording that demonstrates what you've learned? Social media is also a great way to build up a personal archive of all the resources you've found during the MOOC and continue sharing and learning even after the MOOC has finished.

In summary

MOOCs offer a rich, stimulating and social learning experience that can support your personal and professional development. To get the most out of them, you need to make them relevant to you by setting clear goals, and then be realistic about how and when you’ll achieve them. Crucial to this is connecting with people who share the same learning goals as you, collecting and sharing knowledge with them, and finding out more about how the platform can support you.

English teachers, sign up for Professional Practices for English Language Teaching, our free online continuing professional development (CPD) course, starting 31 August 2015.

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