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5 Reasons Teachers Should Dip Into MOOCs For Professional Development

Easing back into teaching after maternity leave recently, I read about the new trend of MOOCs. As a faculty developer and teacher educator interested in professional development, it seemed MOOCs offered an interesting new approach, so I immediately decided to dip into them this summer.

Dip into MOOCs

Kirsten Sistak via Flickr

I ended up taking four Coursera courses and one Canvas course. Much has been said about the varied quality of these courses, and about whether they really meet their goals. I honestly don’t know what each instructor or university’s goals are for offering MOOCs. (According to one survey, the goals range from altruism and philanthropy to profit making.) But for me, the purpose of the MOOC lies with the learner, rather than with the teacher or provider. As such, here are five reasons I believe academics and teachers should give MOOCs a try.

Observe how others teach online

MOOCs give teachers a chance to see how other teachers work. I have always believed in the value of learning about pedagogy from observing other teachers. If they are good, you might decide to emulate them; if they are bad, you might try to avoid repeating their mistakes. In the case of MOOCS, I am not referring to the instructor-created video lectures: I am referring to the entire course experience. As a teacher educator and faculty developer, this was one of my main reasons for participating in MOOCs. They allowed me to observe how they are designed and taught, and to learn from how other participants react.

For example, I observed that, although online learning often prevents the instructor from being as spontaneous as they can in a face-to-face class, and although it requires a lot of pre-planning of material, instructors can still find creative ways of responding to participant interests and requests. As someone who normally does not lecture in a face-to-face class, I learned how to make a video feel more interactive and dynamic. By comparing the four different MOOCs, I was able to glean some of the “best practices” of MOOC pedagogy used across the courses.

Join community conversations about topics that interest you

While you can find all sorts of discussion forums online for different interest groups, those on MOOCs have some of the most diverse groups of people I have ever seen. The discussions can range from directly related to the class syllabus to completely learner-generated topics. Because the courses are time-limited, the conversations can be more intense (time-wise) than on other discussion forums where responses can take weeks or months. I took a course on child nutrition where the lectures focused mostly on avoiding childhood obesity, but during one discussion, for example, my classmates dove deep into how that related to their experiences with picky eaters. In another course on ADHD, the lectures focused mostly on the medical side, but many of the community discussions focused on educational and psychological aspects.

Unfortunately, in many so-called xMOOCs, it seems learners eventually lose access to the courses and hence to these discussions, but some instructors involve students in a community on social media outside the course, and these communities can continue beyond the course. (Most so-called cMOOCs are open in the sense of staying freely available even after the class isn’t active, and there are some xMOOCs that have decided to do so).

Re-live the student experience – online!

MOOCs allows teachers to find out what it is like to be on the receiving end of eLearning today. You may be using some technology in your teaching, but you may not have experienced this learning as a student before. For myself, taking on the student perspective made me realize that in Egypt, where I currently study, mini-lectures (less than 20 minutes) might be a better idea than longer lectures, given the choppy infrastructure here. I also learned from other students’ comments that non-native speakers sometimes need the transcripts or the lecture slides beside the video lectures.

Learn something new in a structured way

To learn something new, some people would traditionally invest time and effort into reading a book. Others would browse the Internet for resources. However, if you prefer social learning to the solitary pursuit of reading a book (after all, as an adult learner and teacher, you probably already read a lot of books and other material as it is!), or if you feel you need a little bit of scaffolding when dipping into a  new topic, MOOCs are an option. Whereas previously, you could follow an entire course’s lectures by downloading lectures from iTunes U, for example, the benefit of a MOOC is that you can do assignments or quizzes to validate your learning: I took a course where I almost never watched the lectures themselves as the topic was already familiar, but doing the assignments forced me to reflect on and analyze the topics in ways I would not have done independently. The forums and peer assessments can also socialize the learning experience for you, enriching the depth and breadth of your learning.

Find well-chosen (mostly free) resources on a topic or sub-topic

Whereas you can always search a specialized educator website such as MERLOT or look at some open courseware, taking a MOOC can provide you with a plethora of good organized resources on a topic of interest, with little investment on your part. I am always searching for “good” free eBooks, and I assume that the ones suggested by MOOC instructors are judged to be of a “good enough” quality. If it is a topic you are unfamiliar with, this can be very helpful. Unfortunately, none of the courses I took made good use of open access academic journals. The closest I came to anything of that quality was in a course on Nutrition, Health and Lifestyle, which asked students to search the PubMed database and review abstracts related to that week’s topic.

And, apart from the books and articles used in a MOOC, the MOOC itself is a resource that you might use in your own classroom as Mike Caufield argues in this article about distributed flip classes. You may also be interested in this discussion from an anthropology professor about how he encourages his graduate students to use MOOCs to shore up gaps in their training.

As you can see from these examples, MOOCs vary widely in quality. There is no reason to dismiss MOOCs simply because they are online, are delivered to the masses or are free. And there is also no reason to glorify a MOOC based on these same characteristics.

Adult learners (particularly academics) are usually busy people with multiple commitments; they do not necessarily need to follow a MOOC from start to finish to learn something useful for their own professional development. And, as I’ve written about elsewhere, MOOCs will not automatically empower, nor magically educate, but as adult learners with personal learning goals, teachers can approach MOOCs in an intentional manner and make use of their potential.

I would suggest that any educator with even a remote interest in the power of technology for professional development should not miss out on this opportunity. I hope to encourage my own students (themselves teachers) to try out a MOOC next semester as part of the course I am teaching. I (or maybe even they!) will be back to report on that soon. Meanwhile, happy MOOCing!

Maha Bali (2 Posts)

I am doing a PhD in Education at the University of Sheffield, UK, and I also work in Egypt at the American University in Cairo (AUC) as a faculty developer (in the Center for Learning and Teaching) and as adjunct faculty teaching Educational Technology (in the Graduate School of Education). I have an MEd in eLearning from the University of Sheffield (a totally online degree), and a BSc in Computer Science from AUC. I took four MOOCs (completed three) in one summer while I was on maternity leave, and I think I'm addicted!