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Rethinking your CPD: Do you MOOC?



No, this isn't the latest dance craze. MOOCs are Massive Open Online Courses. 

They are ‘massive’ in that they are designed for unlimited participation, sometimes engaging tens of thousands of learners. Being ‘open’ means that there are no criteria to meet before you can join the course. Normally it also means that access is provided free-of-charge (although some providers operate a freemium model to help cover costs, charging for ongoing access to materials and certificates of achievement).  

To be able to engage large audiences at low cost, the learning is delivered ‘online’ via the web. As we know, there is a wealth of information freely available online. Our own NIHRtv YouTube channel is a great example of this. As ‘courses’, MOOCs offer a structured learning journey, expertly connecting key concepts and helping learners pace themselves through the activities.  

Albert Einstein said: ‘Sometimes one pays most for the things one gets for nothing’. Is this the case with MOOCs or could it be that ‘the best things in life are free’? 

Many reputable providers offer MOOCs, and unless you need a certificate it is likely that the course will not cost you a penny. It will however cost you time. Hence it is worth having a clear strategy for how to approach incorporating MOOCs into your CPD (continuing professional development).

After looking at all the courses available you may be tempted to sign up to several of them. However, I’d suggest selecting just one at a time (since most run several times each year). Allocate protected time in your calendar to work through the activities at the pace recommended by the educators. Given the large number of participants learning together you often get very interesting discussion threads generated during a MOOC. Your learning experience will be significantly enhanced by actively engaging in such activities - but this does take time!

Just like reading a book, sometimes we are drawn into purchasing the novel by the interesting cover and the one-line reviews. My wife has a 100 page rule - if after 100 pages the book is not living up to her expectations then time to stop and find a better story. This is also a good strategy for MOOCs.  If you are not experiencing the learning journey you expected midway into the course it could be time to switch to another programme.  

Another strategy is to take a ‘pick-n-mix’ approach. We educators spend hours devising courses that carefully link concepts together, helping pace learners to achieve the stated learning outcomes. Equally this starts with the premise that you, as the learner, will need to achieve all those learning outcomes. If only one or two of the course aims apply, the MOOC format makes it easy to only study the activities that are relevant to you. Good MOOC design recognises this and ensures each activity works well as a stand-alone experience.

It is a common feature of MOOCs that only a relatively small number of participants complete all the learning activities, so you will not be alone (and no one will see you slipping out of the back of the classroom).

Learning using a MOOC can be a relatively anonymous experience, although this will depend on how much you engage in the discussion threads. In MOOCs it is hard for the educators to differentiate between learner procrastination vs. someone highly engaged but selective in their learning. Hence, understanding what it means to be an effective self-regulated learner will also help you make the most of MOOCs and other online education resources. 

Here are a couple of recommendations to help you get started in the world of MOOCs:

John Castledine, Head of Learning Development and Design, National Institute for Health Research


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.