First UM MOOC is a hit Rafaël Philippen

First UM MOOC is a hit

Written by  Jos Cortenraad Wednesday, 20 January 2016 14:15

MOOCs are all the rage in education today. Virtually every self-respecting university offers several Massive Open Online Courses, accessible to all and almost always free of charge. Millions of people from all over the globe participate in such courses. Last autumn, Maastricht University (UM) jumped on the bandwagon with its MOOC on Problem-Based Learning (PBL).

When asked if the MOOC experiment is worth repeating, project leader Daniëlle Verstegen doesn’t think twice. “Yes,” she says. “This first MOOC was a success. We still have to evaluate it properly, but it’s already clear that the course has strengthened the position of UM and its PBL expertise. We reached people all over the world, received very positive feedback, managed to work well together in a large and diverse project team and had many interesting discussions about PBL. Overall, it’s a good start for MOOCs at UM.”

Verstegen, coordinator of eLearning based at the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences (FHML), had her doubts at first. So too did other members of the project team. “On the face of it, MOOCs seem to go against everything our educational system stands for. In Maastricht, students work on concrete problems in small groups under the supervision of a tutor. MOOCs tend to be more like traditional lectures.”

“Besides,” adds Amber Dailey, facilitator of the project group, “MOOCs often have thousands of participants. They interact on online message boards, but there’s hardly any supervision or feedback. Instead it’s purely about passing on knowledge. So MOOCs appear to have very little in common with PBL.”


This is not to say they disapprove of the immensely popular form of education. “Not at all”, Verstegen continues. “MOOCs provide information and materials to countless people who usually wouldn’t have access to them. Obviously that’s a good thing. Besides, it’s a form of eLearning, which is something UM is actively involved with as well. We make many of our materials available online and we also provide online education, for example for international students enrolled in part-time master’s programmes. And since we profile ourselves as ‘leading in learning’, of course we need to explore whether any new form of education, MOOCs included, will benefit our students and lecturers. Not to mention the fact that it’s always a good idea to take a good look at your own system. Are we missing out on any trends or social developments? Are we still up to date? What is the essence of PBL? That’s the kind of self-reflection the Executive Board was hoping to bring about with this project.”


So in early 2015, an interfaculty project group presented UM’s first, experimental MOOC: an original online course on PBL. “After all, our educational system differs from that of most universities in the world”, Verstegen explains. “Many students and lecturers come to Maastricht because interactive, group-based education appeals to them. We thought it could be beneficial to explain and explore the system in a MOOC. All departments supported the idea, which was nice. We also wanted to find out what goes on in a MOOC, how people from different backgrounds communicate with one another, and of course what they think of PBL.”

Valuable investment

After an intense period of preparations and recruitment, the eight-week online course started in early October. Dailey: “More than 3000 people signed up from all over the world and 300 actually finished the course. That may not seem like a lot, but it is compared to other courses. MOOCs require a big commitment in terms of time, and all you get at the end is a certificate.”

Most participants were involved in some way in education. “That’s something we’d expected”, says Verstegen. “There were many university lecturers from all over, as well as UM lecturers, tutors and alumni who now know more about our educational philosophy. One of the benefits of MOOCs, this one included, is that they can boost professionalism. We still have to evaluate it properly, but the response was overwhelmingly positive. The participants formed study groups based on their profiles and interests and often turned in surprisingly elaborate, creative assignments. The way social media and other tools were used for communication was an eye opener as well. We’ll be able to use these experiences in our eLearning programmes.”


The question remains whether UM will offer more MOOCs in the future. “I can’t answer that just yet”, Verstegen says. “But we found that it had a positive effect on the university’s image. I can see our faculties using MOOCs to recruit students or to showcase what they’re working on. Personally I don’t think MOOCs will replace parts of the curriculum, which is a concern you hear occasionally. They’re not some kind of great educational revolution. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that they can provide additional content support, or that we might want to incorporate MOOCs from other universities in our curriculum.”


Dailey couldn’t agree more. “As a new way of sharing knowledge, MOOCs can definitely make a valuable contribution at UM. It was fascinating to see that there were parallels with PBL in the way the cooperation in the groups arose and developed. All in all this was a successful experiment, and one that’s worth repeating.”

Amber Dailey studied in Texas and received her PhD in Adult Education at Cornell University in 2002. From 2010 to 2013 she worked on various research projects at UM. She is now a full professor at Park University, a private institution near Kansas, and works part time at UM.

Daniëlle Verstegen (1968) has worked at the FHML Department of Educational Research and Development since 2008. She coordinates the eLearning taskforce and leads the UM MOOC project. She is an expert on education design and the use of eLearning in Problem-Based Learning.


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