As I mentioned in a previous post (My interest in psychology…), I developed a stronger interest in psychology over time — high school, my tadpole years, losing my parents, my relations with my siblings, becoming an aspiring writer, getting married and having a son. Which was a long way around to say that I have wanted to take an introduction to psychology for some time. And given my past experiences, and a desire to access solid curated content, probably a university course, but not necessarily.
I don’t need it for a degree, I don’t even care if I get a credit for it. Then I found out about free MOOCs — massive open online courses. I don’t care about the massive part, I just need someone professional to have curated some content for me to access and work my way through. Open is great, partly as it usually equates to free. Online limits the time commitment required, and allows me to timeshift it easily. I’ve considered EdX, TheGreatCourses, and Coursera, among others, and I started taking one MOOC earlier this year (Understanding Video Games), just to get my feet wet.
Then I saw an article about my grad school alma mater, Carleton University, offering an introduction to psych course as a MOOC. Sounded good. So I contacted the prof, had a brief exchange, and ended up discussing the future of the course as well as the choice of textbooks. The existing program at the time was using the 3rd Canadian edition of a text that is up to the 9th edition in the U.S. I could see that the 4th Canadian edition had been released and I was curious which version he recommended During the exchange, he mentioned they were revamping and updating the course content to match the 4th edition, with a hope too to come up with a cheaper online version of a textbook. I decided to wait to finish my previous MOOC, and look into the Carleton MOOC come the fall. In the end, I haven’t finished the old one yet, but the new one has started, so I’m doing both.
Getting started on the new course
The new semester started, and I went looking for the course. It was much easier to locate this time (back in the Spring, there were about six clicks to get to the course, now it was just two). Much better site signage and user interface. Which augured well for a good experience. Registering, however, was a different kettle of fish. There were four links that were active — two different courses (Part I and Part II of an intro to psych) plus two different offerings (a previous and ongoing version plus a new version). All four links would allow me to see the description, but all four said “You are unable to enrol in this class”. This lasted about 4 weeks, and I had basically decided to focus on the other MOOC course but got distracted with other things in my life, so when I went to go back to the other one, I thought, “Oh, what the heck, try Carleton again first.” This time it went swimmingly. The system is set up well, all the links were active, I could enrol and did, I was good to go.
There are three main components to the course. First and foremost is the textbook. I ordered it through an Amazon affiliate, and it took 10 days for the book to arrive from B.C. Not superfast, but appeared initially cheaper. Textbooks aren’t cheap, and full price was listed at $140; the affiliate had it for $120. And since there are not many used versions available of the 4th edition, I went with new and online, opting for the convenience of having it delivered instead of having to go find it at the campus store. Apparently I should have waited. The professor had negotiated with the publisher for a loose-leaf binder version plus etext version for $95, which probably would have been more efficient than lugging around the hardcover textbook, but I’ll suffer through. My wife is going to University of Ottawa, and as the text is used in lots of intro courses at various universities, she probably could have picked it up there for me too, so online ordering was more convenient, but I had other avenues I just didn’t pursue. But I digress. I have a textbook, the course is free, my internet is already paid for, on with the course.
The course outline follows the textbook chapter by chapter so while the prof jokes in the lecture materials that it is up to the student to use whatever they want (including Harry Potter texts if they prefer), it is definitely recommended to use the same text that the course follows. Cost wasn’t a factor for me, so I am using the officially recommended text.
The second component is the video lectures. Some people say that video lectures make or break MOOCs. Either the professor is engaging or it’s a giant snoozefest. That is in fact the model that the Great Courses company relies upon — finding great professors who are passionate about their material and recording their lectures (and selling them for profit, obviously). I’d love to know if MOOCs has bolstered or hindered The Great Courses business model, but I assume they’ll adapt their own materials to some sort of online option too. The professor set up a “Chapter 00” to explain how the course will work, give some basics about what the course is about, and generally give people a safe sample chapter to experiment with so they see how it all works before the content starts in Chapter 01. The intent for the course is that you read the textbook to get a feel for the material, and then watch the videos.
The intro to MOOC (Chapter 00) was interesting, and the slides referenced in the videos are available for download / printing. Mostly the videos were pretty well done, engaging, and the transitions between slides and videos were pretty solid. This is way better than the video-lectures you see in university-TV courses, these are direct one-on-“one” lectures to you. Kind of like a documentary, or a newscaster speaking directly to you, not someone lecturing at a roomful of other people and you’re just watching.
You might think that since Chapter 00 is just an intro to the course, there wouldn’t be much to review on substance, and you would be right. There was a general overview of how the two courses (Part I and Part II) use the same textbook and divide at chapter 8 of the text (i.e. 1-8 is Part I, 9-16 is Part II), and how they work well together. It wasn’t perfect, but it was solid. Seems petty to even mention but I suspect all MOOCs have some administrative/logistical challenges. For instance, some of the video links said they were 12 minutes long, but the actual video was only 8 minutes long (likely a change from the original video that was there). Secondly, some of the slides shown in the videos were not exactly the same slides as in the download copy — not contradictory, just editing differences showing a version control problem. Nothing substantive, just might confuse some people who are anal-retentive types or nervous taking courses for the first time. Thirdly, and this is more related to the next section, some of the links regarding quizzes were not exactly where the video said they would be on the menu, and another option seemed to be missing altogether. Again, not huge, and I flagged them for the prof just for quality control improvements in the future.
The third part of the course is the evaluation process. There are self-quizzes as you go through the course materials. Each week covers one chapter in the textbook and has multiple smaller videos that go with that, labelled “a” to “g” for example. In between each video is a self-quiz. These are for self-evaluation, just need to complete them. At the end of the videos i.e. the end of each week, there is a chapter quiz — these count towards a grade, are time-limited, represent a pool of questions from which you randomly do 10, and you have two attempts at it if you want (your score is average of the two attempts). Five points for each quiz, etc. This is a bit different from most MOOCs, as most are just for your own benefit. You can get an online certificate saying you completed the course, but you don’t get a university “credit” for it. There are some exceptions (for example, the video game course I’m doing is also taught as a regular university course, and people can register in it normally and do it as part of their semester, with set time limits etc.). This one is also a bit different too. You still do it at your own pace, but once you’ve done 20% of the course and if you pass the first few quizzes, you can transfer to the “full” credit version of the course and pay tuition, etc. It’s the same course, but you get a university credit for it.
One of the benefits they suggest is that this is a great way to get your feet wet “trying out” university. I think it is more accurate to say this is a great way to try out “online self-paced university”, but in-class university and regular distance university are quite different from this version. Still, it’s an interesting option.
There is an optional fourth element for this course, as there is for most MOOCs — an online forum. In it, they encourage people to network, socialize online, share their experiences, etc. For some, I can see the attraction of this; for me, I’m looking for curated content, not a discussion group to debate issues. Plus, one of the complaints often of MOOC participants is that the schedule is messed up — people start the course in January for example, and make a comment in week 2 on one of the readings (say, January 15th). Then someone else comes along, starting in June, and sees the comment and replies to it in their week 2 (say June 15th). So the first person gets an email saying, “Hey, someone replied to your comment” leaving them to wonder, “WTF? What comment? Huh? I finished that course 3 months ago?”. The idea works well if you can get a cohort that moves through it together at essentially the same pace and with similar start and finish dates. Other than that, people who are on week 8 don’t really care what happened way back in week 2. They’ve moved on.
As an aside, there was an interesting “addendum” for the week. Credits. They posted five videos that served as “credits” for the course — with five other sets of people (the Dean, another prof, some techies, a student, etc) all talking about the course, how it worked, wishing people well, etc. Two were just formal (the Dean, another prof) and could be easily skipped. One was highly amusing as two profs (I think they were profs) did a small series of stand-up skits about how much trouble they have helping out (i.e. sample — “Turn on the computer — okay….do you come here often?”). Cheesy, but not completely lame, humour. Well-done, engaging, and completely irrelevant — I have no idea who they were, what they have to do with the course, why they were doing credits, nada. I presume they helped the prof with reviewing the content perhaps. But there’s no way to know, it’s just them being friendly, and mildly amusing. The best of the batch was one by a student talking about tips on how to stay motivated, keep to a schedule, get the most out of the course, etc. Useful advice, likely watched by almost no one taking the course. After the Dean said “thank you, good luck” for 2 minutes, they likely would assume “nothing I need here and skip the rest of the page”. The last one with the student isn’t even identified as HAVING TIPS, which would increase its viewership.
Why mention all this? Because part of what I’m doing is evaluating the medium and how it engages me or not. Maybe that will be of interest, perhaps not. But every “chapter” review or week’s coverage will also cover that’s week “medium” too, not just the content.