Yesterday I started studying my first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). As if I didn’t already have too much to do!

But I’m a glutton for punishment, and E-learning and Digital Culture is a field in which I’m both interested and involved. The course, to which about 40,000 students have signed up, has been created by the University of Edinburgh, and runs for two weeks. At the moment I’m embroiled in the first week’s course:  “Looking to the Past.”

Now, I came to this course with some expectations. In the 1990s I worked for a company that developed a highly-sophisticated computer-assisted learning system. I was there when it took its first tentative, primitive and exciting steps into the WWW. The biggest challenge back then was avoiding the trap of merely transferring text and images from paper to screen. Or creating an imitation teacher-is-boss classroom. Engaging and encouraging and rewarding the learner.

So I guess I was expecting a course that would make use of both the established and developing strengths of online learning. And what did I find? Text. Lots of text. Text I could print out on paper if I wanted to. Text that sometimes looks like on-screen text from the 90s! Oh, there are some interesting moving images thanks to YouTube, but I seem to remember that we used to have them back in the bad old days of film projectors. And there’s a discussion forum. Lots of discussion.  Discussion that one has to wade through for nuggets of interest. Perhaps too much discussion! 

So is this it? No lectures? Nothing that energises or inspires or engages me because it’s presented with enthusiasm, or controversy, or personality?  That gives me insight into the thinking of the course creators? Yes, it is useful being navigated towards texts, and being prompted with questions. The discussions are searchable (if you know what to search for. And as you know, I like serendipity). There is activity on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. But…

Am I being a cynical old bastard?

I wonder. I read the comments of others who are super-excited by this! Who are thoroughly enjoying being part of it. Perhaps then this isn’t really about revolutionary new ways of learning (as I naively thought), but about community. Maybe we want to feel part of a group, a group in this case that stretches far beyond our desktop, a group of people engaged in the same activities and perhaps scratching their heads over the same problems? Perhaps we each have an individual need to wave at a world of hopefully sympathetic people and shout “I’m here!” “I’m having trouble!” “I’m showing off!” “I’m lonely!” “I don’t get it!” “I get it!” “I’m lost!” “I’ve found the answer!”

So perhaps I was wrong, and online courses aren’t just about flashy new ways of content delivery and assessment. I think those will be important. But it seems that technology here is acting as a facilitator of the group, not just what the group is doing. Which is why social media has been so successful? 

Ironically the course begins by looking at utopian and dystopian aspects of technologies. Technologies that can dumb us down and create group-think are at the same time capable of creating thinking groups and enlightening us. Perhaps.

I’m going to plough on through the readings and dip toes into the sea of discussions, just because I need to be able to say that I’ve experienced this and lasted the course…