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Why Are Students Taking MOOCs?

Students from the U.S. and abroad on why they enrolled in first Northwestern MOOC

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September 10, 2013 | by Storer H. Rowley
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Among Northwestern University's first MOOCs is "Understanding Media by Understanding Google."

EVANSTON, Ill. --- On the East Coast, Valary Oleinik, 46, is on her fourth course with Coursera and just signed up to take Northwestern University’s first massive open online course (MOOC) offering: Understanding Media by Understanding Google.

“I have tapped out my savings, so looking for free and inexpensive alternatives to continuing my studies is appealing,” said Oleinik, who is a project manager at an international law firm in midtown Manhattan.

On the West Coast, Jim Clawson, 62, has also taken multiple courses from Coursera, the firm that aims to educate millions of people by offering a digital learning experience from professors from top universities online at no cost. He signed up for the Northwestern MOOC on Google and media because he wanted to continue the “learning adventure.”

“I am really looking forward to the course on ‘Understanding Media by Understanding Google,’” said Clawson, who lives in Irvine, Calif., and works for iPayables as a marketing analyst. “We live in a world that’s so dependent on the Internet and how we communicate with each other.”

Across the Atlantic, Denise Ashurst, 46, a copywriting and marketing services entrepreneur who lives in Wales in the United Kingdom, signed up for the Google and media course for a combination of personal and professional reasons.

“I work from home and am a sole trader,” she explained. “I am single, so rely on my own income. I use the Internet a lot and use it for my entertainment. I am also committed to personal development. As I wish to continue upping my income, I want to increase the scope of my skills and knowledge so I can offer more sophisticated services and a wider range of them.”

The first Northwestern MOOC, “Understanding Media by Understanding Google,” has already generated interest from tens of thousands of students -- even before it launches Sept. 16.

For one Medill senior who took the “on-premises” course earlier, the subject matter goes way beyond technology and gets to more important privacy issues and the future of media.

“I think Google’s motto -- ‘Don’t be evil’ -- is becoming more relevant with every step they take to push the boundaries between what is public and what is personal,” observed Dawnthea Price, 21, of Fredericksburg, Va., whose words are quoted in the promotional video on the course on Coursera’s website.

Read more about why Oleinik, Clawson and Ashurst signed up for the online Google course.

Valary Oleinik

Oleinik was curious and “the topic sounded interesting.” She also said MOOCs are appealing because they are free and anyone can enroll.

But why take so many MOOCs?

“Since I am interested in distance education, I take the courses with multiple purposes,” said Oleinik, who lives in New York. “One is to experience the MOOC concept for myself and see how different universities and MOOC facilitators are approaching this new medium of learning.

“I also pick courses that fit in with professional needs and goals,” she added in an email exchange. “I am an active writer and social media advocate, particularly in the areas of technology training, personal learning environments, business communications and presentation skills. One of the previous MOOCs I participated in was on digital media and culture, so this one seemed a nice complement.

“This time around I am also exploring the use of Google+ in conjunction with the two MOOCs I recently signed up for,” she said. “I am going to attempt to do a sort of live-ish blog of my experiences with the MOOCs.”

Besides her work at the international law firm, Oleinik also is writing an e-book on presentation skills for which she wants to develop a complementary online course.

“Again, seeing how others structure online options helps me advance my skills in both the subject matters of the various MOOCs but also helps me learn to structure online offerings,” she said.

Her last semester project involved creating personal learning environments. “I see MOOCs as a vibrant component to that concept,” she said. “That is one thing that led me to Coursera in the past. Also the fact that it allows me to continue my studies in a free or low-cost manner is important.”

Jim Clawson

“Today, a lot of our communicating throughout the day is spent on texting, social media and keeping informed,” Clawson said. The last class he took was a writing class on rhetorical writing. “It was done extremely well,” he said. “All the videos, the Google video hangout and feedback from other students participating made it a very worthwhile and enlightening experience for me.

“I am anticipating the same type of learning adventure,” added Clawson in an exchange of emails. “I guess the other reason I am excited about this course is that the material is about Google and the media. A lot of our time on the Internet and computer these days is all about Google and the media, so I am interested to hear what is the latest and most interesting info on this topic.”

Clawson works for a firm that does electronic invoicing and automation for medium- to large-sized companies, helping accounts payables departments to become more efficient and profitable.

“Learning more about Google and how they have perfected ‘search’ and have kept us informed will be enlightening,” he said. 

Denise Ashurst

“The teaching method does not require the buying of books,” Ashurst said. “This was key to my decision. My income constraints do not allow for 'luxury' -- albeit I consider ongoing education vital. I love the fact that I can take this course from the comfort of my home, too; the Internet is a fabulous thing!”

Asked in an email exchange how this could help her career, Ashurst replied, “I am involved in the marketing industry, and I also am a political activist in my personal life. Having read some of the material already, I can see that what I might learn here will help both my professional development and my political commitment to democracy, openness and accountability of governments and multinationals.

“Professionally, I have to stay abreast of what companies like Google are doing to change the market in advertising. In understanding the detail of the changes, I find it hard to stay abreast of the bigger picture sometimes,” she added. “This course looks like it will give me that perspective.

“In that sense, it also may help in terms of working with the diverse amount of companies I get to work alongside, by giving them insight into trends and so helping them develop appropriate strategies that make the best use of their budgets,” she said. “I work with a lot of Internet service companies, marketing their services to small- and medium-sized businesses.”

As an independent copywriter, Ashurst works mainly with website developers and for small businesses wanting to promote services. The range of businesses she writes for is diverse. “I rely on myself only to pay my mortgage and bills,” she said. “It is crucial I continue to add value to what I do and stay abreast of issues in my industry.”

More questions for Valary Oleinik on why she is taking Northwestern’s first MOOC:

Q: Was there something about this specific teaching method, the online technology or the University that appealed to you?

A: I have always been a self-starter and voracious reader, so I appreciate the curation aspect of MOOCs. It's wonderful to have an expert sharing a basic structure to follow, but also the freedom to explore and take from the experience what each student wants. While I notice the universities that conduct the various MOOCs, it is honestly not really part of my decision-making. I'm willing to learn from anyone and at least start a MOOC and see how it is set up and what it has to offer.

And then, of course, since I'm not paying a large sum I can walk away if need be at any point. I had one MOOC cancelled because the professor realized it was not quite ready for prime time yet. Another I had to pull back from because of a family member's health. It affords me a lot more flexibility than a traditional course, even an online one. I will always go where my interests take me, and I think that often the best ideas come from combining ideas from seemingly unrelated topics.

Q: How can this type of online program and MOOC teaching help enhance your studies and your career or your future?

A: Since a portion of my job involves training, I am always looking for ways to help develop new options and better learning opportunities. Again, seeing how others structure online options helps me advance my skills in both the subject matter of the various MOOCs but also helps me learn to structure online offerings.

Q: What is your educational background?

A: I am originally from New Orleans, and I got my B.S. in management at the University of New Orleans in 1988. I worked in the performing arts as a dancer in musical theater and then moved into the business realm as a proofreader, helpdesk support representative, technical and professional skills trainer and then project manager. Last year I received my certificate from the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Instructional Systems Development graduate school in distance education. I am hoping in the coming years to move into more writing, public speaking and consulting, so the MOOCs are also a great way to network and meet some new people.