My two-cents on MOOCs

On of my graduate students asked me for my point of view on the future of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) since we’ve been studying them this past week.  I’m glad he asked and I’ll try to share here.  I’m not an expert, but this is what I’m thinking at the moment.

Here’s a worthy video introduction to MOOCs from the New York Times titled “Welcome to the Brave New World of MOOCs”:

I do think MOOCs in some form are here to stay.  I do think they will continue struggle to make it into the mainstream of K-12 and higher education.  I think they exemplify the potential we now have for life-long, 24/7 learning outside of traditional settings – and that’s a wonderful thing if you value that.  But I think the potential audience and content will be limited.

Audience – The MOOC environment seems to require self-motivated, flexible learners who are comfortable with the online environment.  Depending on the type of MOOC, it may also require extroverts – e.g., who of us are courageous enough to step up to the opportunities to mingle with strangers and even experts?  Think about a typical classroom of students, and consider how many are likely to be successful in a MOOC.  From my experiences, I’d think some ratio of 2 or 3 out of 10 maybe.

Content – I believe that not all content is portable to a MOOC setting.  Many experts would disagree with me on this.  The “badge” format that comes out of competency-based pedagogies is well-suited to MOOCs.  Courses that are based on the achievement of identifiable, demonstrable skill levels can work in MOOCs.  But not every subject we teach can be broken down in such away.  I have the same concerns with gamification.  Sometimes learning isn’t just about the attainment of the final objective, but more about being involved in a learning process that can’t be shortcutted.  I’m a strong believer in placing learning in a social context.  Some MOOCs seem to be making strides in this, and many aren’t.

Credit – I can’t see MOOCs breaking through our accreditation expectations anytime soon.  It’s just too hard to claim that thousands of students in one course can be evaluated individually and verified for credit.  Where accreditation matters (universities, especially), MOOCs will remain on the fringe with some trying to offer some MOOCs for credit.

There are a number of studies that are coming out that are suggesting that MOOCs are “failing”.  This article from explains some the failures that many have been pointing out.  And I think this article from The Wall Street Journal offers a fair middle-of-the-road assessment of MOOCs.

I try to be careful in interpreting these articles and related studies.  It depends on what you’re measuring success and failure by.  If you’re measuring by the percent of students who complete a MOOC, certainly the numbers are going to be low by the nature of a MOOC.  If you’re trying to measure student “engagement”, you’ll have challenges again due to the limitations of a MOOC environment.  If you’re waiting for universities to start offering lots of MOOCs for credit but still free, you’re going to be waiting for a long time.

But I would suggest using other measurements for the success, or at least worthy value, of MOOCs.  For the self-motivated learning who wants to acquire new knowledge or skills, MOOCs open up a whole new world of opportunities.  For someone stuck in a workplace with no opportunity to take on a graduate degree program, they can pick and choose opportunities that can give them an edge for promotion or job transfer.  I see great potential in K-12 where schools may be limited by staff and/or resources (or simply just by time in the day) to offer courses that extend students.  And, I’m not just thinking of the AP/honors students.  There are students who haven’t found what grabs their interest in the regular K-12 curriculum, but might latch onto something new in a MOOC.  There are people who will benefit from sticking with a MOOC until they learn what they need and then drop out.  And I see great value in using MOOCs to make educational experiences truly global, and equally accessible to novices and experts across disciplines and social classes.

Where traditional credits don’t need to be offered for learning something, MOOCs will find their value.  An employer may have an expectation that employees simply continue their learning and growth.  MOOCs are a cheap option to push them continued education – far better for the budget than promising to pay a portion of every employee’s graduate degree.  And you still gain the benefit of workers who continually are adding new knowledge and skills to their toolbox.  As the boss, I may be o.k. with employees submitting a “digital badge” rather than a traditional diploma as an indicator of achievement.

From the institutional side, I think you’ll find more universities dabbling with MOOCs.  I don’t believe all universities will feel the pressure to offer MOOCs for credit in the same way that we now are feeling pressure to put programs into “traditional” online courses.  It can be a great way to promote a university and gain wide exposure for your brand, to build collaborative efforts between schools, and to test out the potentials for online learning generally.

So, I don’t fret about MOOCs, and I also don’t place all of my hopes for the future of education on MOOCs.  I think they are a part of the evolution of education and an adaptation to the digital tools we now have access to.  And I think they support the notion that we all don’t just need to be life-long learners in the 21st century, but that we actually can be if we wish to.

Just pressing on…

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One comment on “My two-cents on MOOCs
  1. Bernard Bull says:

    This seems like a fair assessment. I would suggest that we expand this, however, to think of blends and convergence. Consider, for example, MOOCs as resources for traditional courses. This is already happening on the K-12 level and growing quickly. By the way, people are already offering college credit for MOOCs. Colorado State did it, but didn’t get any takers. The University of Maryland also agreed to offer transfer credit for certain MOOCs. I think there are four or five others that have also agreed to do so. In addition, Coursera and EdX are nearing an agreement with Pearson to manage proctored exams in MOOCs as a step toward offering them for credit.