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MOOC Review – University of Amsterdam’s Intro to Communication Science

I saw the announcement on Twitter of the launch of the first MOOC from the University of Amsterdam, Introduction to Communication Science by lecturer Rutger de Graaf. I was immediately interested as I work in the field of communication and was also very curious what it would be like to study in that format. So I quickly enrolled for my first MOOC. Bring it on!


UggBoy via Flickr

UggBoy via Flickr

A MOOC experiment

The course consisted of eight weeks of lectures with quizzes and a final exam. Our lecturer kicked off with an introduction to the concept of MOOCs, and he made it clear this way of teaching is new to the University of Amsterdam and that the team saw this course as an experiment. De Graaf encouraged everybody repeatedly throughout the whole course to participate actively in the forum and to give feedback on the MOOC and thereby help the university to further improve the MOOC.

Greek and Roman origins to communications theory

The first parts of the course covered the unavoidable definition of the phenomenon of communication and several models illustrating this. During the following weeks we time-traveled to visit Plato and Socrates in antiquity and study their views on persuasion and the art of rhetorica.  We then leapt into the Dark Ages and learned how the lack of literacy and how political and religious powers influenced the way messages were brought to large numbers of citizens.Plato

Propaganda and power of the media

We then moved on to the rise of the mass media and, from a scientific point of view, the fascinating time of the two world wars. Generations of scholars carried out research to find out to what extent mass media could influence public opinion, the public agenda and the behavior of huge numbers of people. Quite often, consecutive scholars and researchers did not agree with each other’s theories, so de Graaf covered viewpoints and arguments that lead to new theories and models.

Messages, brains, culture

During the last weeks of this MOOC, our lecturer explained how the process of constructing and deconstructing messages works and even gives us a glance into how our own brains learn to understand and what actually happens when we communicate. Furthermore, we discovered the role communication plays in identifying with certain groups or cultures and the role it plays in constructing the culture that surrounds us in our daily lives.

The week before the exam was spent answering questions students posted during the course and on extra clarification of certain theories or models. The questions on the exam were challenging now and then, but the weekly quizzes were in general quite straightforward. More questions comparing different lectures over various weeks could have resulted in a deeper understanding of the material.

The Edia platform

The university did not want to use an existing platform for this MOOC and future courses, so they developed one themselves. The team built it with the help of Edia, a supplier of educational applications.

This portal worked fine for me. It was easy to access, to find my way in the portal, to watch the lectures and to take the weekly quizzes. Really helpful was the fact that feedback on the quizzes was provided immediately, which made it easy to find out what parts of the lectures needed some extra attention. For every weekly topic, tips for further reading were given in the so called “box of nuance.” The videos contained fun animations, which was simple but effective.

What could still use some improvement in the portal was the fact that some questions on the quizzes did not correspond to the part of the lecture that they were made for but actually covered another ‘chapter’ of the course. I also discovered some Dutch language here and there on buttons in the process of submitting answers, though all the rest of the course was in English. This made me wonder how non-Dutch students would handle this.

The MOOC team responded quickly to questions and requests from students. For example, subtitles for the videos were made available after students asked for them.

Behind the scenes

As I mentioned before, this MOOC  was an experiment for the team at the University of Amsterdam, and that’s why they conducted a survey in order to learn more about the students and their motivation to participate. Rutger de Graaf was very transparent about the findings of this survey and shared them in some behind-the-scenes videos. Personally I enjoyed hearing these facts and figures and about the process of developing the MOOC, but I doubt whether this will also be included in the next edition of the course.

How Introduction to Communication Science will help you

The most fascinating parts of this MOOC for me were the connections made with other fields like sociology, psychology and (cultural) anthropology. These cross-overs showed that aspects of communication are all around us and also showed how important communication is in human interaction, human behavior and in the construction and development of culture.Retro TV

What will completing this MOOC bring you? As around 2,000 years of history are being compressed in less than 8 weeks of lectures, most concepts and theories cannot be covered in depth. The lecturer explains what a theory is about, who “invented it and puts it in a historical context.

The theoretical, summarized content of this course will not immediately make you do things differently in your (communications) job. It merely provides you with an understanding of what is actually being studied in the field of communication sciences. You learn about the most important theories, models and paradigms and about the most influential scholars in the field.

If you are interested in communication, curious about scientific insights of this field, would like to know more about the extent to which the media can or cannot influence people or are looking for an overview of this field, this MOOC might be interesting for you. Introduction to Communication Science starts again in September 2013.


Patricia van der Linden (1 Posts)

Works as a communication consultant at Kennisnet Foundation (knowledge centre for the use of ICT in education). Is curious about all developments in the field of communications and in the current media landscape. MA in Organizational Anthropology and BA in Communication Management. Guest blogger on, reviewer of contemporary dance pieces.