Search This Blog

Sunday, June 9, 2013

MOOCs and COMAs (read to the end)!

This post stems from a recent discussion being held over at ELT Jam on whether MOOCs are suitable for ELT.
I recommend you read the original post written by Nick Robinson, as it makes for very interesting reading, but as with many blog posts, where the topic really comes alive is in the discussion that follows in the Comments section. Both viewpoints (for and against) are expressed in these comments, and really get you thinking about if and how Massive Open Online Courses could be an alternative to face-to-face or blended courses in the realm of English Language Teaching.

In this post I will go into more detail on thoughts I have had since reading the post and comments on ELT Jam.

Thanks to G Forsythe

For the past two years I have co-moderated along with some fantastic people, a Digital Storytelling course with EVO (Electronic Village Online). EVO is free online teacher training provided by volunteer moderators and runs for 5 weeks each year. It is not really a full MOOC as there tends to be 200-300 participants on our course, which is why we decided to call it a SMOOC (Small Massive Open Online Course), even if that sounds like an oxymoron! EVO itself has been successfully running for many more years.

When we started, Shelly Terrell, as the creator of the course proposal, had already planned the outline of the course and each of the moderators took responsibility for developing the content of one of the five weeks. We have a wiki with all the syllabus information, a place for discussion and another to post tasks. Ideally, a MOOC would have all these spaces integrated so that it is clear for students where to post comments, projects etc. We added tasks that participants had to complete during the week, including reading articles and blogs and then commenting in the discussion forum, trying out tools and posting the results, and as always, commenting on each other's work.

As I mentioned in my comment on ELT Jam, I think a similar course could be run for English Language Learners. I joined a French MOOC last year, which was based on video. You would watch the video and answer comprehension and language questions. There were no tutors on the course, but you could check your answers as you completed exercises. I personally used another tool called Memrise to help me learn the new vocabulary.
Personally, I think a healthy mix of different types of media would enhance the course, including texts (these could be authentic - articles from online newspapers, blogs etc), games to practice language and some kind of space where learners could connect to each other to practice their productive skills. 

As for the syllabus of the course, I suggest dividing it into several modules or units (as in traditional language education) that are progressive in terms of the language and skills required. However, instead of following a traditional syllabus, organised by grammar or vocabulary, I think a task-based approach would be more suited to a MOOC, or any other online course. Why? Firstly, a task-based approach easily allows learners to progress at their own pace. It also allows for more interaction than simple question and answer type exercises which tend to abound on the internet, as learners would be able to discuss the tasks in a forum, or even work together to complete a task. There could be some language work for learners to do either before, during or after the task is completed. This language could also be discussed in the forum among the students, and the moderator could help direct this discussion. This way, emergent language could be focused on, or at the very least, several language areas that would typically stem from each task could be suggested. Students would have more control over the language they are using and learning.

I think a task-based course needs to be carefully structured so that it gradually increases in level. One of the most important things is, in my opinion, to make the first few tasks fairly simple, in order to introduce learners to the format of the tasks. Another important aspect is having learners get to know each other before the course starts. At EVO, we always begin with participants trying out one of the tools we present in the first week to introduce themselves. We encourage them to welcome each other and comment on each other's intros. This creates a nice group atmosphere and allows participants to feel confident enough to comment and discuss their ideas with each other.

One of the main problems I see is the fact that many MOOCs are free. Of course, this is great for the students, but I'm not sure where the money would come from to actually set up and run the course. With EVO, it is just 5 weeks and can survive on volunteers, but this would not be sustainable for a long-term course. As I said before, a quality course would need a lot of planning, requiring many hours from the content creators, tutors and moderators. These people would need paying! People looking for online courses tend to go for the free ones... and I can understand why. There is no guarantee that the course would live up to your expectations. It is common for learners to lose motivation and drop out, unless they are working towards some kind of certification. Perhaps such a course could be done on a modular basis, where students buy modules in turn, like ELT Teacher 2 Writer is doing?

Another issue is the O for Open. If a course is freely open to everyone, there will not be any control over who enrols. I suffered this personally after enrolling on a course in Android App development. Having no programming knowledge whatsoever, I joined a course advertised as one in which "no programming knowledge is required". Of course, after trying really hard to get to grips with Java, reading "Beginner's Java for Dummies" and asking for help from the tutor, I ended up dropping out. In ELT this would mean people joining the wrong level, as they join a B1 or B2 level course in the quest for certification. A new part of my job this year is convincing people of their real level and that they need more than just a few months of lessons in order to pass the exam they need. In a MOOC, there would be nobody to do this, unless some kind of entrance level test were required.

Do you think a MOOC is suitable for language learning? How would you address the problems outlined above?
Is a task-based approach appropriate? I'd love to hear more ideas about this, either here or on the ELT Jam blog.

Ending on a more humourous note, in Spain MOOCs have been unfortunately translated as COMA (Curso Online Masivo Abierto)! Just imagine saying that you are "on a MOOC" bearing in mind that the preposition "on" and "in" are often both "en" in Spanish! 
Licencia de Creative Commons
So This Is English Blog by Michelle Worgan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at