Online learning: For the open-minded, an exciting multimedia experience awaits

Massive online open courses allow anybody to fit study into busy lives, use social media to enhance learning and trigger debate and, importantly, have fun

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The Independent Online

First, I have a confession to make: for the past few years, when not on writing duties I have been moonlighting in a country band.

This has not only led to a wardrobe full of checked shirts, but also a more practical desire: to learn more about the process of writing and recording music. As a result, in my evenings off, the dog grudgingly makes way for the tablet on my lap, so I can continue my studies.

I'm far from alone. Coursera, the platform delivering my free massive online open course (Mooc) in music production via Berklee College of Music, offers some 800 courses to students from 196 countries. It's not unheard of for Mooc cohorts to be in the tens of thousands. Online learning is on the rise.

Moocs are very much still the new kids on the block. Online learning itself, however, has been a part of university programmes and language courses for some time, and the modern incarnation is a thoroughly multimedia experience. "When we started online programmes some 12 years ago, they were very linear and text-based," explains Helen O'Sullivan, academic lead for online learning at the University of Liverpool. Today's courses still focus on students remotely discussing the content they have read, she continues, "but they're now supplemented by video, online lectures and other web-based materials".

Technology, in the form of both software and the portable devices used to access it, has played a huge part in the evolution of online study. Whether you're on a business MSc or learning a new language, content can be quickly uploaded and accessed anywhere, says Judy Verses, president of global enterprise and education at language learning provider Rosetta Stone. "We are thinking mobile first, with the mantra 'anytime, anywhere, any device'."

violin - Copy.jpg
Close up of violinist performing (Caiaimage/Tom Merton/Getty Images)

For Open University student Lucy Flint, 43, discovering technology was one of the benefits of studying for her BSc in life sciences. "I had to explore different learning environments and use technologies I hadn't met before. You become used to having a go at something new," she says. As well as enabling her to fit studying into a busy schedule, the degree improved her scientific understanding, which in turn boosted her medical events business. "There are other benefits that I would associate with continuous learning, including confidence and taking risks."

Unlike their more formal counterparts, Moocs are short and do not award degrees upon completion (although it's often possible to sign up for a certificate of completion, for a fee), but this doesn't mean they lack value, according to Daphne Koller, president and co-founder of Coursera. "Moocs allow anyone in the world with an internet connection to get access to anything they want to learn," she says.

Courses allows learners at all levels - there are no entry requirements - to engage with a subject as they see fit. A learner might be motivated by casual curiosity, or be looking to complete a programme and enhance their CV. "This is a way of making education permeate your day-to-day life," says Koller.

My experience supports this. The first Mooc I signed up for - in songwriting - provided meaningful instruction but also introduced me to new ways of thinking about music. As listener and performer, this was no small benefit, while getting involved in structured learning again improved focus and organisation. Plus, it was just fun.

Moocs are free and wide-ranging offering courses from science to music (E+/Getty Creative)

However, I stayed clear of the class forums, fearing they would be as unruly as other communities or comment sections. But according to Koller, this is exactly where the real learning can happen. "If you find something challenging, there are people who find it invigorating to help their fellow students. This environment attracts people who are excited about improving themselves; it doesn't attract the typical troll."

Reassured, I ventured into the forums on my new programme and found exactly the environment Koller describes: helpful, informed people sharing their experiences and expertise. I learned more to help answer the queries I had in a few minutes than in the previous hour's aimless internet wanderings, trying to solve the same problem.

Using social media to enhance learning is the great strength of Moocs, says Céline Louche, professor of strategy at Audencia Nantes business school. "There's a misconception that Moocs just involve watching an expert give a lecture," she says. "What's most rewarding for participants is taking the video as a starting point from which they are asked to carry out assignments and take part in discussions."

Following a successful launch for the school's corporate social responsibility course, Audencia will develop others. Moocs are here to stay, says Louche. "This brand of online learning is now a firm part of the business education landscape."

Seedlings growing in test tubes (OJO Images Ltd / Alamy)

Businesses are also harnessing the power of online learning to keep training costs down. It also makes learning more effective, suggests Dr Huw Bristow, CTO of Silver Lining Solutions. The company creates training software and built a programme for one client that ran on employees' smartphones and felt like a game. "The assessments, which unlocked new content based on their knowledge level, persuaded people to keep going," he says.

The advantage - as with many online courses - was that learners could 'play' anywhere on phones and tablets, gaining knowledge in small chunks. "Crucially though, it was enjoyable enough to motivate staff to learn more," says Bristow.

Schools are also embracing online learning, using cloud technology to give students access to teaching resources outside of school hours. This approach is designed to work in conjunction with the classroom, not instead of it, says Joe Mathewson, co-founder of UK learning platform Firefly ( He believes it empowers independent learners, especially the younger generation. "Pupils can learn at their own pace in their own learning style," he says. "Parents can join in and support their children by having access to the learning resources and seeing their progress."

For online learners on any type of course, engagement will only come if the material merits it. Innovative presentation helps, says Michelle Boardman, senior academic manager of University of Derby Online Learning (UDOL), whose forensic and crime scene investigation course features a virtual crime scene.

Moocs are free and offer courses such as music (Justin Sutcliffe)

"We are utilising many tools to provide a rich experience for our students, including videos from industry experts and interactive activities for students to complete to check their understanding," Boardman says. "Gone are the days of a lone student staring at a computer. Now it's about social learning and interacting with peers."

Online learning does have its issues, however, particularly around student motivation - they still need to sit down and reach into the virtual world, after all. "We recognise that this can be a challenge," says Boardman, "so we have an induction which provides learners with guidance."

Developing courses and course content tailored to online learning - as opposed to simply putting standard course resources online - is also improving student retention, according to Boardman. She's even confident that participants can experience the social side of study. "Students have virtual cafés where they can talk, discussion forums and also live webinars with their academic team."

The future will see even more two-way interaction between online students and staff. There's more to do, Boardman says. "The bit we haven't quite cracked is the opportunity for them to have a virtual pint in a virtual bar - but it's on our list." Until then, the dog and I will settle for playing some Johnny Cash while we talk to - and learn with - our fellow students all over the world.

Professor Alberto Alemanno of HEC Paris launched a popular Mooc called Understanding Europe earlier this year. He explains what makes a good course, and how to get the most from your online learning experience.

Alberto Alemanno of HEC Paris, launched a popular Mooc (Massive Online Open Course) called Understanding Europe, earlier this year. (Connect)

"The key traits of a truly useful Mooc are relevance, clarity, consistency and quality of teaching. The programme must be on a subject that has a real impact on the applicant. The course should be offered by a limited number of instructors - students should do their research, watch the course trailer and so on before registering.

"Participants of a Mooc should devote some time at the beginning of the course to familiarise themselves with the platform and the contents and forum - often the only venue where they will have the feeling of belonging to a classroom.

"They need to set reasonable expectations: what do they want to get out of the course and how much time can they devote to it? They shouldn't focus exclusively on the evaluation but also on other aims pursued by a Mooc, including exchanging ideas with other participants. This might be more enriching than obtaining a good grade."

Tom Scott, gained an MBA online from the University of Liverpool.

Tom Scott, gained an MBA online from the University of Liverpool (Collect)

"As an expat in Mexico, gaining access to an institution back in the UK was a huge motivator. The University of Liverpool offered an intensive, participatory mode of online study which included enough flexibility for me to manage my professional, family and personal interests at the same time as pursuing an MBA.

"The programme was rich in content, provided access to excellent tutoring and gave me extensive exposure to current schools of thought in the business world, as well as providing continuous opportunities to interact with professionals across the globe. What did surprise me was how much people interacted; it was a real value-add to the whole experience.

"The impact on my professional life has been immense. I would not hesitate to recommend it, but it's not for everyone. Learning of this type requires a certain kind of person."

Online learning:
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More guidance is now available to the community of online learners