The MOOC Experience

So, the MOOC is over. It has been a very interesting six week but I made it. I completed all the projects and I am now waiting for my completion certificate. So, what has this MOOC experience been like?

To recap, the MOOC I took was Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization, offered through the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, University of Texas at Austin, and taught by Alberto Cairo. I wanted to take a MOOC because it seems to be the thing right now. You can find almost every day an item about MOOCs in the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed. I tend to be skeptical of buzzwords. So, I thought, at the very least, and before passing final judgment in MOOCs, I should take at least one. And I did not want to take a sociology course because *yawn*. I thought I might as well try to learn something in the process of testing out the format. After all, I have already let it be known at my college that I wanted to develop MOOCs there.

So, I randomly bumped into a mention about the data visualization course on Twitter (who said Twitter was useless!) and decided to jump. This turned out to be the most interesting experience I have had in a while and it turned out to be the right decision. Since I had registered early for the course, I decided to read Alberto Cairo’s book, The Functional Art, to get a head start. So, by the time the course started, I was ready.

The Course

The course itself was 6-week long, structured week-by-week, increasing in difficulty and complexity as weeks passed. Because it was the first MOOC for the Knight Center, we could tell that a few course corrections were made along the way. Also, since the course was offered in-house (as opposed to through Coursera or Udacity), enrollment was limited to 2,000 students (small number for a MOOC).

Every week, we had some reading to do. All the materials were provided, we didn’t have to buy anything, books or software. We were also provided with video lectures by Alberto Cairo, based largely on his book, as a series of Youtube or Vimeo videos on the specific topic of the week. On weeks 1 and 2, we had to complete quizzes. Those were a bit of a joke, I have to say: 2 quizzes, 5 questions each, 30 minutes to complete. It is probably why those disappeared after week 2. I did not miss them.

In weeks 1 and 2, our work on data visualization was mostly critique. Alberto Cairo gave us infographics and we were supposed to analyze them and determine what worked, what did not, and what we would do to improve it. We were supposed to post our analysis on a message board, and then, post twice more to respond to other students’ analyses. The first week, there was only one message board and that was a mess. I posted early (I think I was second), then waited for other people that I could respond to. Very quickly, I was overwhelmed when the floodgates opened. Not only that but for the late posters, there really wasn’t much left to say about the original infographic. There is only so much critique that can be done. So, I posted my two other responses and left that first discussion board. There was just too much going on there.

The course organizers must have realized that as well because by Week 2, they had created 10 message boards and we could pick whichever we wanted. I picked #10 and stuck with it. I was not the only one because I saw the same names cropping up again week after week (Board 10 FTW!). We are a gregarious species. Apart from that, Week 2 went by pretty much as Week 1 had: readings, video lectures, quiz, infographic critique.

Things got really interested in Week 3 (gone were the quizzes) where we were asked to start designing, even if a basic sketch of an alternative infographic based on some data Alberto Cairo gave us. This was mine (don’t laugh):

Initially, this was truly daunting for me. I had never really done that. But that is where I realized how this course was: a whole bunch of us had to jump in the pool and do something we hadn’t done before. In addition, we had to comment on two other projects from our classmates. Everybody was pretty thoughtful about their comments but, obviously, the skills gap between students was pretty immense. Some people were obviously already professional designers. Others like me are pretty decent with data but less so with the design part. And still others were truly novices at the whole thing.

Weeks 4, 5 and 6 were designed the same way and I have already posted my work on these weeks herehere and here. I will also be posting all my data visualization work, beyond this MOOC, in this Flickr set. So, for these three weeks, most of work was watching the video lectures, project design, and then spend some time in the message board looking at other people’s work and offering comments.  Theses discussions were very stimulating and it was exciting to see other people’s work and ideas, irrespective of skills level. Overall, the project took most of my concentrated time while working on the message board was more scattered. For the last three weeks, I would estimate that I spent about 6 hours a week on this course (including one all-nighter!). I spent less than that in weeks 1 and 2. It was fine, I never felt rushed but I always did want to finish my project work early because of my own full-time job. But it was all very manageable.

The Students

This was a major surprise to me: about 2,000 students, and, according to the Knight Center, people from over 100 different countries. I am not surprised. You could tell, through the discussion boards, that this was an extremely diverse crowd, a lot of  non-native-English speaker people (like me). I don’t think many of them were college students either. It really felt that we were all adults, working professionals in a variety of fields, like journalism, design, academia and non-profits. This was truly a global course and I hope it stays that way because it was fascinating, especially on week 6 where we could pick our own project, to see what topic people selected. The diversity of interests and approaches was breathtaking.

The Instruction

Alberto Cairo was the official instructor for the course and from what I could tell, one or two assistants helped him manage the course, especially the message boards (although I did not notice any trolling or inappropriate behavior at all in there, which is a fear I had read about before… not here, everyone was focused on the work). However, Alberto was in constant contact with us either through general messages and posts or by popping in different message boards and offering feedback and advice. Some of us reached out to him on Twitter and he is very approachable and kind. That certainly helped and will, I’m sure, contribute to making the course a popular one. He initially stated, after Week 2, that he might pulled back a bit but he did not, as far as I could tell.

His video lectures were great and very much reinforced what is in his book. The quality of the Youtube videos was a bit BLEH but that is probably more a Youtube crappy compression format issue than anything else. These videos were pretty short (under 15 minutes), so I would watch a couple at a time at different times of day and week. They pretty much set the “agenda” and focus of the week’s work.

Alberto also provided optional Illustrator lectures. I have not watched them, but I have them saved for later, once I get over my Adobe products phobia (is there a name for that? A support group?).

What Worked

The course itself is more powerful than I ever imagined it could be. I had no idea when I started six weeks ago that I would get all excited about plunging into massive databases (Calc, FTW!) to extract information and that I would learn Tableau, and get all fancy in Piktochart. I still have some learning to do for Tableau and the dreaded Illustrator. Heck, I’m even considering going into R and Python (that’s for later). It would actually be great if Alberto Cairo were to create MOOCs for that too.

But this course really pushed me to just jump in and start working on my own visualizations, no matter how amateurish they look. I think many of us will leave the course with enough skills to start working our own stuff. Those of us who were not designers when we started are still not designers now but we get a little bit of the skills that can help us integrate some design into our regular work. We all learned a lot. A lot.

The atmosphere of the course, especially through the message boards, was relaxed but serious, professional but friendly. As I said above, there was no trolling. Everybody was focused so, I’m sure we all felt confident to share our work, knowing that it would be evaluated thoughtfully. We encouraged each other a lot while providing good critiques.

Six weeks was the perfect duration. Enough to get some depth into our work, but no burnout and no repetitive work. The course objectives were limited as well as the scope of the course. I think this course was perfectly sized in organization, substance and workload.

What Could Be Improved

I have always been ambivalent about using a lot discussion boards and peer review as pedagogical tools. The first week of the course showed that it can quickly get messy and counterproductive. so, sure, you can create a whole bunch of smaller message boards but then you have to manage them all. At the same time, it’s a MOOC, so, you won’t have everybody’s work evaluated and graded by an instructor, so peer review is the main option. It works, I think, when working on skills. It is more difficult when working on more “written” work.

Quite a few students have complained that they were receiving too many emails from the message boards and could not keep up (of course, they could have shut that down) but the point is it is tricky to keep up with a message board activity, even a smaller one.

So, what frequently happened is that people like me posted our work early and we discussed each other’s work. Then, we would wait for other people to start posting, responding mostly to the first ones to post. But then, our own work would sit there, largely ignored as the board postings multiplied and other students started talking to each other. As the week progressed, I would pull back and so, mostly did not respond to latest project postings. Actually, since the boards remained opened after the end of the week, in week 3 and 4, I still received emails from postings from the Week 2 board, but I could not be bothered as that point. I had moved on. In the end, I think a lot of people got their work remain unevaluated. The requirement was for us to evaluate at least two other projects. Maybe that requirement should be increased to 4 or 5.

Maybe there should have been some way to have some ability grouping. But then, I also really enjoyed seeing the work of more expert people so, I don’t know what the right balance is here. In the end, I think diversity should prevail. After all, even novices can offer good critiques from a strict user perspective.

Final Thoughts

I do hope Alberto Cairo offers an Infographics II, especially in interactive graphics. I am so nowhere near that level. I also hope there is a way for “alumni” to stay in touch (although there is a Facebook group but I wonder whether this is the right format). Maybe we could create our own Tumblr to share our dataviz work.

This MOOC, I think, defeats a lot of the negative stereotypes about the format: no one is going to take this MOOC and test out of anything. It is not going to steal students away from colleges and universities. But it certainly has imparted skills to people who wanted and needed them. The fact that the course was not populated by college students should also appease some fears. After all, this was more continuing education than anything else: a bunch a professionals from all over the world (who will not go study at the Knight Center anyway) who wanted a new educational experience who fit their busy schedules and who had access to technology. The course is not a substitute for a full-fledged curriculum on the subject. It is a bite-sized introduction, and a very good one at that, but a limited experience nonetheless.

I don’t even know if this course would work with college-age students. Although it was only for six weeks, this course required some commitment and persistence that not all younger students might have (especially with no credit at the end). I wonder what percentage of the 2,000 class completed the course.

Now, the million dollar question is whether this MOOC is way better than the average MOOC, and now I am completely spoiled and other MOOCs will feel lame and mediocre by comparison.

And I really, REALLY want Alberto Cairo to teach a MOOC on dataviz for social scientists.

But again, this has been a wonderful experience and I will miss it. One of my colleagues (a librarian) will be taking it next time around.

14 thoughts on “The MOOC Experience

  1. Thanks for the review, I’m registered for the next wave of the course – reading this I’m looking forward to it!

    My take on your million-dollar question: From what you’ve said, this course sounds similar to my experience of MOOCs on Coursera. I’ve done three to date and all have been very good – I’d definitely recommend it, MOOCs are brilliant for introducing you to a new subject.

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  3. Socprof,

    Enjoyed reading your post. I was one of your fellow 2,000, and have to say thoroughly enjoyed the course. I haven’t been to University since I finished my masters 15+ years ago, and this course made me realize some of the things I missed.

    I didn’t know there was such a controversy over MOOC’s. (In fact, I had never heard of them before). My personal highlights and lowlights:

    The projects were interesting, and fun to do.
    Alberto’s video lectures were well structured and very informative. I also went through some of the illustrator points, and found them very useful.

    I did not love the message board software and the navigation/ commenting. I personally didn’t get any notice of comments made on the message board, or notifier emails.
    The peer critique in an online forum is hard to ‘level’. Generally, I felt it was overly polite, and so not that useful. On the other hand I can see how it could get out of hand quickly.

    • I very much agree with all your high and low points. But then, I have been using Blackboard for years (not by choice), so, I am now immune to crappy interfaces. You had to subscribe to the message boards to get the email notifications, which is convenient if you don’t want to login every five minutes to see if someone posted something. But it gets messy very quickly.

      If the class had gone longer (I don’t think it should have), maybe we would all have gotten comfortable and familiar enough with each other to be more critical of each other’s projects. Otherwise, it’s hard to jump on a stranger and criticize their work, especially with such great variation in skill levels.

      But I think most of us really did enjoy the course and Alberto’s video lectures were indeed great. I have them saved because I’m sure I’ll go back to them every once in a while. I have quite a bit of “digesting” to do with that content.

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  5. I agree that peer grading may not be very efficient. I felt like most of the discussions were around professional work, and “not so good” students were just neglected or got no feedback. Although using software was not required and Alberto tried to highlight students’ work based on the idea rather than execution, infographics made with Tableau or Adobe Illustrator drew my attention. I wish there was at least one lecture with the detailed steps of making end-to-end project by using a software. I haven’t finished my last project…I have a story, data, and numerous drafts… but got stuck with final presentation . I’m thinking about taking this class again and asking for help:)

    • The course was a basic introduction. Any introduction of more complex software would have made the course too complex and six weeks would not have been enough. I do hope they offer an intermediary / advanced MOOC on the same topic.

  6. Thanks for your review SocProf, and for all the other comments. Am registered for the January adventure. Reading your feedback is very useful and Alberto has indicated he is reading/listening. I am heartened by the emphasis on ideas rather than techie execution. Yet I know I’d like to feel marginally competent (as a non designer) by course end. Nonetheless, its a great opportunity and my first MOOC.

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  8. I’m a graduate student who has signed up for the January course. Thanks for posting this review. I found it helpful, though I question the following comment:

    “Although it was only for six weeks, this course required some commitment and persistence that not all younger students might have (especially with no credit at the end).”

    An individual’s age does not preclude them from committing to learn new skills.

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