Studying on a MOOC: Introduction to Psychology

I wanted to create this post to reflect on my experience of studying on the Introduction to Psychology MOOC. The MOOC was run through Coursera and was taught by Steve Joordens, a professor at the University of Toronto. As mentioned in my previous post, I started this Intro to Psychology as I wanted to experience a MOOC first-hand and I have always been fascinated by psychology as a discipline. I completed the MOOC a couple of weeks ago and I now feel I am in a position to reflect on this experience.

Learning experience

This course was structured in a classical university format. We received weekly lectures and were graded via a mid-term exam, a final exam and through a peer-assessed assignment. Naturally – this was all a little different as it was all done online. The video lectures were 10-18 minutes long on average which made them very easy to fit in with work and my other commitments. There were eight lectures a week and the course was eight weeks long so there was a lot of content. Each lecture included a mini quiz to test understanding and linked to a collection of further reading/watching. Like a good student, I took diligent notes for all the lectures, using the experience as an opportunity to experiment with a variety of note-taking techniques – but more on that another time.

Steve Joordens is one of the most engaging lecturers I have seen. I still cannot believe how drawn in you could get even though it was all by video. He is exceptionally adept at explaining things and managed to structure a course in a very approachable way. This is important in the MOOC world as it involves people from so many backgrounds. I would argue Steve is the definition of a ‘superstar professor’. The term was coined for fear that a single professor teaching on a MOOC engages with tens of thousands of students, portraying their views/arguments on the discipline coupled with the fame associated with such a large audience. Is it good in academia to have so few teaching so many? I am concerned by this idea of course but I believe Steve portrayed a very even viewpoint on current arguments. His distaste for eating meat and using animals did shine through however. I’m not sure that is such a bad thing :). The reason I define his as a superstar however is that he has an excellent teaching style, he is in a band (that he livestreamed to those on his MOOC), he has a string of teaching awards and he is conducting a lot of excellent research into pedagogy.

On reflection, this MOOC is one of the best learning experiences I have ever had. Most importantly of all – it cost nothing. I am still in awe regarding that fact, especially as I am currently funding myself through study. Unlike my degree, this experience didn’t cost a penny and the teaching was just as good. The issue that the level was much lower aside, this experience means nothing as it doesn’t bare credit. Here lies the problem with all MOOCs. Until they’re recognised – it is difficult to see them as a path to career progress. Having said that – all MOOC providers are literally racing to provide MOOCs in a credit baring way. The first few courses that bare credits are launching now. Watch this space…



The examinations were taken through MTuner – an exceptional online examination tool that I believe is developed at University of Toronto as I’ve not see it elsewhere. Questions are multiple choice, but students are encouraged to type in their answer first. I found this very useful as when presented with a list of options, doubt always creeps into my mind. It also gave me confidence when submitting my answers as I have gone through the process of typing my answer and then seeing it as an option on the list. The most important aspect is what happens when you go wrong. If you answer incorrectly, you are given the opportunity to watch a video clip of the answer. You then get to choose your answer again and you will still receive marks for it – though less than if correct the first time. As Steve puts it:

When someone tunes a guitar they go one string at a time and see if it’s in tune.  If it is, they leave it and move on.  But if it isn’t they “tune it up” and then move on.  When they are done they have all the strings in tune which is a beautiful thing!  The mTuner Activities try to tune up your knowledge of what you learned while also assessing where you’re at

I like that idea. When you get a question wrong (or a string isn’t in tune) – you fix it before you move on. The couple of questions I got wrong, I remember because of this process. I doubt I would make those mistakes again!

The peer assessment activity was done through PeerScholar. Students submit their essays and then grade their own work. The following week, students are each given another six assignments to grade and comment on. After  seeing the work of six others, students are encouraged to reflect on their own work and give it another score. The following week, students can review the comments from other students and the grades they have been assigned. The actual grade we received would be the average of the six marks. In a real course, you may get a tutor or  teaching assistant (TA) to review these. For a course with thousands of students – this is not so possible. Having said that, Steve has done extensive research in this area. Some of this research suggests that the grading done by students is incredibly accurate. In one study, the average of the six grades given by peers matched exactly with the score given by a TA. I’ve seen a LOT of peer assessment activities – but I was incredibly impressed with how this online tool processed it. I am very keen to look into PeerScholar further…

MOOC elements

All my description so far describes this course a rather traditional – all be it online. On reflection, you could pass through this entire course without truly engaging with any of the MOOC elements. Dave Cormier argues that a successful route through a MOOC requires five stages:

  1. Orient
    Simply orientate yourself. Find out what is due when, where things are, etc.
  2. Declare
    You need to declare yourself on the course. This can be through a twitter hashtag, through a course forum or personal blog
  3. Network
    Start to make connections through the above mechanisms. Get involved in the discussion.
  4. Cluster
    Cluster with people who have a similar interest. Focus on their blogs/posts/comments.
  5. Focus
    Focus on what you want to achieve. Why are you doing it? What do you want to achieve. Work with your cluster maybe?

Now all these opportunities were available in the MOOC, but on reflection, I didn’t particularly network or cluster. I orientated myself and then declared myself on the forum and twitter. I didn’t really have the time to do more than that. I could have networked and clustered through the course forum or via social media but I just didn’t have time. It didn’t even have an adverse effect on my studying. It was perhaps a missed opportunity, but not something that damaged my progress. What I wanted was to learn some psychology and achieve my certificate of completion. That was my focus.

Would I do anything differently?

Definitely! For a start, I would have networked and clustered. While this had no impact on my learning, I think it was a great opportunity that I missed. While I am sad the course is over, had I networked I may have a group of people to still explore this subject with. Having said that, I just didn’t have the time because of when this course fell. Next up I would have kept myself a little more up-to-date. On reflection the course was too flexible and it gave me no motivation to keep myself in line with the course schedule. Having said that, had it been strict I probably would have been unable to do this.


The one thing I would state from this journey is that I am now convinced MOOCs can work. I was very dubious before but now I am not – I think they have their place in the world. This place however is not anywhere near replacing traditional study. I think people will always have the desire to go to University and have that experience. Humans are social beings and face:face interaction is still so much more than computer mediated communication can replicate. This is however my opinion. I sometimes wonder if the generations who are raised with this technology see it as a valid and equal means of communication. I digress. I think the huge volume of students on a MOOC make traditional HE difficult. At some point you need to get interaction with a TA/facilitator/Lecturer/Professor to really challenge and further your understanding. At the very least they are needed to assess work…

7 thoughts to “Studying on a MOOC: Introduction to Psychology”

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