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Something Familiar, Something Great: ELearning and Digital Cultures MOOC Review

by Angela Towndrow via Flickr

by Angela Towndrow via Flickr


I heard about MOOCs at our neighbor’s annual holiday party when Sarah told me she was taking a “wonderful” poetry class from a MOOC site called Coursera. Sarah is a busy mother and nurse, and it struck me as amazing that she was studying poetry with an international cohort.

I had seen Daphne Koller’s Ted Talk about Coursera, but I didn’t realize free online classes like this were really real until I talked to Sarah.

Being involved with education, I looked MOOCS the very next day. I scrolled through the Coursera listings and registered for  Fundamentals of Online Education from Georgia Institute of Technology. Little did I know I would be part of the infamous MOOC crash later that month; I was in group #12 of the ill-fated course.

But in the meantime I had found another MOOC that looked interesting — ELearning and Digital Cultures, offered by a team of teachers at the The University of Edinburgh, “aimed at teachers, learning technologists and people with a general interest in education who want to deepen their understanding of what it means to teach and learn in the digital age.”

The five-week course featured carefully-curated videos, readings and other digital offerings. The topics included utopias and dystopias, a look at the past and the future and the question of what it means to be human. I started watching, discussing and speculating with my peers, who had an incredible range of views and experience. Like online students usually do it seems, I dove in, finished the first part in record time, immediately fell behind and then rushed to get  caught up at the end.

What is this thing?

From the very beginning we were asked to think about what our final project would be. In order to receive a certificate of completion, the only requirement was to create a digital artifact of our choosing that indicated thought and reflection on the subject matter, following a very clear rubric.  The project would be peer-reviewed by three classmates who would decide my fate by filling out the rubric.  We would also be required to carry out three peer reviews ourselves.  It was that final project that kept me coming back; I had never been asked to create a digital artifact before, and I felt inspired to be part of this, this . . . thing.

Partway through the course, a thought struck me. Something about the range of voices, experiences, ages and backgrounds, along with the looseness of structure, reminded me of my years as a homeschooling parent.

We learned so much (and our kids did too), yet is was impossible to explain to anyone in traditional school systems how the freedom of homeschooling actually allows you to learn more than sitting in a classroom with the same-age, same- background peers. Within our family we used to call what we were doing “World School” because we were able to travel more, go to international festivals and be out of the house dealing with the world on a much more active level than we could have by putting our kids on the bus to school every day.

The first week after making the decision to home school we felt a little odd, but after that things got so busy and interesting we hardly had time to worry about what others thought. My feelings after a few weeks in a MOOC were similar. So what if people are saying MOOCs aren’t “real” college? So what if it’s not part of any system? I got too involved with learning to worry about that.

The energy level was high, and new ideas were put forth and implemented. In week three of ELearning and Digital Cultures, there was a class photo competition; submit your photo and everyone votes for their favorites.  Unfortunately, that was during my distracted period, so I didn’t submit. But I did take a look later. My personal favorite is the illustration by Angela Towndrow at the top of this post. I feel it really speaks strongly to the place of digital world in our lives – specifically with the course itself. Obviously this MOOC had become a part of the photographer’s life at an unexpected level.

Digital artifacts

Among other things, the final project needed to address the themes of the course, to have something to say about digital education and to stimulate a reaction in its audience. I decided to put together a short video at our college of ESL students and how much they use computers. Compared to a few years ago they are much more connected to the internet.


I was thrilled that I could connect my homework “assignment” with my own professional interests as an advocate for teaching computer literacy as one way of transitioning students forward.

Peer reviewing in a MOOC

As I worked on my video, I couldn’t imagine what others were putting together, so I put on my “tolerant and open-minded” hat when I opened up work from peers to review it.

My jaw dropped; each and every project I looked at was outstanding, thoughtful and unique. One artifact was a blog that contained a short science fiction story related to the view of humanity in the future. Another was a submission by a student in South Africa who put together an infographic-style presentation on how many more people could be educated if mobile devices were used, since nearly everyone there has a mobile phone even when they don’t have access to classrooms. The third was a “thinglink”: a beautifully displayed forest scene with links to articles, quotes and thoughts on the topic.  I gushed and gushed on my reviews, feeling that I wanted to encourage these people to continue to explore and learn.

Two out of the three of my reviewers gave me very positive feedback, and the third was a bit reserved, saying I hadn’t written a “critique” of the experience.  (This made me again appreciate the wisdom of a three-person review team and the 85% rule used by Quality Matters, the organization that helps online teachers with course improvement.)

It shouldn’t matter but it did; when it was all over I received a certificate “with distinction.”

I am excited to be part of this learning revolution that — like homeschooling — is so simple and blended with life that people are reluctant to take it seriously. There are other significant issues to consider, mainly involving the money at stake, I realize. But the MOOC experience hits my “Why Not?” and my “Why is education so expensive?” and “Let’s be more international” buttons in the right spot.

Now I’m taking a different MOOC, offered by Canvas. That story will come soon. I’m sure you will understand that I must get back to it . . . .


Liz Falconer (5 Posts)

I am an educator and lifelong learner, currently in a love-hate relationship with the internet and much of the virtual world around me. My background includes work in storytelling, music performance and composition, newspaper and magazine writing, and exotic things like studying Japanese and living in Japan. I earned an MA Japanese Pedagogy and a doctorate in International Education at the University of Iowa. I have taught in a wide variety of classroom environments, both online and traditional. I am currently RTC’s Curriculum and Technology Specialist. I am fascinated with the challenges and opportunities our internet world is providing.


  1. Nice & empathetic MOOC Review: Something Familiar, Something Great: ELearning and Digital Cultures –

  2. sharing the exact same feeling about the uniqueness of the artefacts!!! Perhaps we are entering an era of redefined education practices – a more creative one, using the utopian aspect of technology in our favor

  3. We are definitely in the era of 21st Century Learning and I love it! Sal Kahn’s book “The One Room School House” is an example of the kind of amazing changes that can occur for modern day educational systems. I am attempting to create a MeetUp group to bring together people that want to make their community stronger through education. I believe this collaboration can produce a much stronger communities.

    Thanks for all you do!!

    • Meet-up groups with people from a variety of backgrounds and experience are a great idea — something to explore for sure!