A Model for MOOCs : Dublin City University Setting the Standard for Language Learning

This week I completed the final week of one of Dublin City University’s Irish language MOOCs on the e-course platform FutureLearn. And I can honestly report that it was one of the best online language learning experiences I’ve had.

If you are new to MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – then you might be surprised at the number of platforms offering free learning through them today. They have been around for some time, with the open source Moodle being one of the first frameworks to bring structured, online learning to the fore in 2002.

Back then, hosting courses tended to be an in-house affair. Colleges and universities set up the first e-learning departments to maintain them alongside teaching staff. I was part of one of those early teams as a subject tutor and technologist, and they were exciting times to work in education.

Now, of course, MOOCs have become a burgeoning industry in their own right, with big names like Coursera, FutureLearn and edX hosting courses from institutions across the world, with free and paid tiers.

Where are the languages?

One reason you might not have had crossed paths a great deal with MOOCs as a language learner is precisely because of the subject. Unfortunately, courses offering foreign language teaching are a little scant. You can find plenty of courses taught through the medium of other languages, like this Coursera course on business negotiation in Spanish. But if you need solid basic-to-intermediate language tuition, you have to look quite hard.

Take a look at the course catalogues on any of the frontrunners, and you will see a glut of courses on business, policy, science and tech. Not surprising perhaps, as these exposition-discussion-assignment kinds of subject fit quite neatly into the online mould. Teaching a multi-sensory, multi-skill subject like languages effectively online takes a bit more imagination.

Fortunately, some e-learning teams have more than risen to the challenge. FutureLearn’s Irish 103 by Dublin City University is a great example of that.

So what makes it special?

Irish 103

DCU struck gold with this one for several reasons. For a start, it is a really personable course, with the team very visible throughout. From the get-go, there’s a humanity and a warmth that makes it a very comfortable place to be. That extends to the forum and chat, which is busy and full of attentive course staff. The right mix of people makes or breaks a MOOC, and the recipe is just right here.

The teaching itself is also top-notch. Big wins for me include the following:

  • Lessons are full of one-click spoken Irish support. This includes Irish words in longer descriptive / explanatory paragraphs, which is invaluable for pronunciation practice.
  • Each of the four weekly sections consists of multiple, manageable chunks with a page per point. You can easily dip in and out to fit learning round a busy schedule – no need to leave anything half done.
  • It is a safe and welcoming community where participants are constantly invited to contribute. Use of Padlet, SpeakPipe and social media strengthened learning across the skills while encouraging sharing and peer support.
  • The cultural aspect is very strong. As a grammar geek, I can sometimes focus solely on the language to the detriment of social and historical context. The course placed the language right into its cultural setting, meshing language and culture seamlessly through multimedia and storytelling. I found myself researching traditional Irish music and learning more about the feadóg stáin (tin whistle) and bodhrán (winnowing drum) well beyond the course materials!
  • The external linked resources like teanglann.ie and tearma.ie are well selected and hugely helpful. They enable the learner to build up an invaluable online personal reference library for further study. You not only learn words and phrases – you gain tools.
  • There are lots of references to points covered in previous and future courses in the same series. This gives a sense of cohesion and progression, but also of being a step on a guided journey to more advanced topics. There is a 10X and 20X track, and I already look forward to what else is ahead.

MOOCS – what you make of them

Clearly, I got a lot from this MOOC. But as with all resources, they are also a product of what you make of them. As well as engaging with the course materials, I found it useful to write down key vocab and phrases each week for my own revision. I also made a lot of use of Anki, adding new words to my Irish deck to practise outside the course. With PDF transcripts and other convenient formats for stimulus material, it is nice and simple to copy-paste into your own notes.

Any successful MOOC allows you this freedom to be creative with the content by doing the heavy organisational lifting. It was this chance to take my foot off the organising pedal that I found particularly valuable, in fact. As an avid planner and box-ticker, I enjoy organising my own learning. That said, organisation is a beast all of its own, and takes lots of time. Here, the course structure took over. The confident, clean style (partly down to FutureLearn’s sharp, clear interface) reassured me that I could let the MOOC handle all that, while I enjoyed the journey.

In short, learning on #FTIrish103 simply felt effortless and effective. The best indication of the value I attached to it is that it fulfilled my ‘what could I be doing instead’ test. Whilst trying to avoid falling into obsessive Duolingo point-chasing, Irish 103 seemed like the obvious worthwhile alternative. It is absolutely purposeful and directed.

Going on a MOOCs hunt

I was lucky to stumble across Irish 103. I was already learning Irish and Scottish Gaelic independently, for a start, so it matched my current learning projects. And that is largely a matter of luck – I am still on the lookout for similar courses in Greek or Polish, which would be very helpful right now. Frustratingly, the search goes on in that direction.

However, all is not lost if you fail to turn up a relevant course (or a MOOC in a new language fails to tempt you to dabble in it!). As already mentioned, if you already have some proficiency in the language already, you could try a course for native speakers in any subject that takes your fancy. The ‘mainstream’ foreign languages like French, German and Spanish are best represented here.

Alternatively, you could choose the path of the geek – my personal favourite. Moodle is still very much alive and in constant development, and free to download. You can install this on your own web server, then dive straight into course creation. Moodle is fairly easy to get to grips with, and you can get up and running with week-by-week course plans of your own very quickly. For a completely open source solution, you could even use public domain resources as a base, like the Live Lingua materials for instance, and create drill activities from them with Moodle’s built-in quiz features.

And then, of course, you can share your wonderful, inspired MOOCs with the rest of us. Sometimes, making – for yourself and others – is the best route to learning. If you can inject as much imagination and subject passion into it as the Irish 103 team, you’ll be on to a winner.

Irish 103 opened my eyes to how good language learning MOOCs can be. I’m already looking forward to Irish 104!

Richard West-Soley

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