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What I Learned This Summer About MOOCs

Posted on: August 13th, 2013 by kfg

A question that comes up frequently this time of year is, “What did you do this summer?”  A major highlight for me was taking a “MOOC,” i.e., a massively open online course.    MOOCs are free, online courses that typically enroll thousands of students.  Some see them as a transformational force in higher education, whereas others see them as the latest fad.  Like most things in life, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.

The MOOC that I enrolled in, “Introduction to Software Development on HANA,” was offered by SAP as part of openSAP.  HANA, SAP’s in-memory data platform, offers great promise for increasing application performance, or at least that is what SAP claims.  Simply put, when you go to a website or use your mobile device, you expect a fast response time—three seconds or less.  However, with current technology, you usually have to wait longer, and sometimes much longer.  Likewise, we are facing new challenges with “big data” in both research and enterprise settings.  As the next generation of technology for data storage and retrieval, in-memory systems such as HANA aim to meet these challenges.

The MOOC was geared toward IT professionals with backgrounds in software development.  Over 42,000 people enrolled in the course, almost 16,000 actively participated, and about 9,400 completed the course.  Sixteen percent of the course participants were SAP employees. A typical issue with MOOCs is poor completion rates, which have been reported as low at 7%[1].  By comparison, this MOOC had a completion rate of almost 25%, probably due to the students being mostly IT professionals.

I have not been a student for a while and readily admit that the MOOC was hard.  The course consisted of six one-week modules plus an additional unit that could be completed for extra credit.   Each module contained 5-10 videos featuring HANA guru and techie rock star, Thomas Jung.  The videos, slides, self-assessments, and other materials were released on a weekly basis. Each module concluded with an online quiz.  Once you began the quiz, you had to complete it within an hour.  There was a weekly deadline for taking the quiz, which was good in that it made you keep up with the course.

But that was not the hard part.  Rather, the videos talked us through hands-on exercises to be completed in our own HANA systems.  This is where the real learning took place—working directly with HANA.   For 99 cents per hour, we could deploy our own HANA systems in the cloud through Amazon Web Services (AWS).  This was really amazing.  We had root access on these systems and even performed upgrades.  The course organizers reported that 9,879 cloud-based SAP HANA systems were deployed as part of the course!

The MOOC had a very active discussion board.   I spent a lot of time reading through responses and posting questions late at night trying to figure out various HANA features.  Looking through the participant names drove home that fact that this really was a global experience. The course was taught from the Hasso-Plattner Institute in Germany and began on a US holiday, Memorial Day, further reflecting its global nature.  All in all, I spent 6-12 hours per week on the MOOC.

In summary, I thought the MOOC was a very effective way to deliver IT training, especially with the ability to complete hands-on exercises as part of the class.  Lots of people like to talk about technology, but those who can do technology earn my respect.  This course was about doing technology.  As a CIO who likes to stay active in technology, I am proud to say that I successfully completed my first MOOC and have my certificate of achievement to prove it!  And, I liked it so much that I have enrolled in the next openSAP MOOC on mobile solution development.

 Kathy Gates

[1] See “Not Staying the Course” by Chris Parr in Inside Higher Education, May 10, 2013,

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