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The Problem of MOOCs

It’s not the “OC” that’s the problem — it’s the “MO”.

It’s weird to think that it’s been six years since The New York Times christened 2012 the Year of the MOOC. I had just finished my first year of a rather traditional undergraduate experience at Bucknell University. I remember reading that within a few years, my younger siblings would be able to forego drafty lecture halls and copious amounts of note-taking.

The truth is that six years later, Massive Online Open Courses still only occupy a niche in higher education. Despite concerns that MOOCs would destroy academia, their limitations have thus far hindered their acceptance and — I would argue — usefulness in higher education. Both of my siblings (and I) still found/find themselves (myself) sitting in lecture halls, taking copious amounts of notes. And I find myself wondering what we in academia have learned from MOOCs.

At a glance, a MOOC seems like a wonderful ideal:

  • As a student, you can learn from a knowledgeable professor at an (accredited) institution without having to consider geographic or even temporal locality to said institution.
  • As a teacher, you can disseminate your knowledge freely without restricting the audience to the number of paying students who can fit in the assigned lecture hall/room.
  • As an institution, you can spread your brand to and share your intellectual capital with every corner of the globe that has an internet connection and a functioning computer (which over time will hopefully increase the number of paying students and the number of knowledgeable researchers interested in attending).

In practice, however, MOOCs have a number of issues:

  • As a student, following a novel, free, oft-ungraded MOOC all the way to completion requires a great deal higher intrinsic motivation and timekeeping ability than for a traditional lecture-based, paid-for, graded course. There’s less access to the instructor, and the other students taking the course may or may not be any actual help.
  • As a teacher, interacting with all of the students taking my course is next to impossible — both because of the quantity and because half of them already stopped following the course. Tailoring my lectures and assignments to fit the electronic format requires hours of additional preparation each week, and the discussions that can arise on the message boards range from thoughtful to conspiratorial to down-right insane.
  • As an institution, the quality of the students attracted to my MOOCs is limited only by their ability to correctly fill out a sign-up form. As with many things in life, the larger my MOOCs get in terms of scale, the lower their perceived (even if not actual) quality becomes. That may reflect poorly on our brand, and it could soak up scant funds and other resources.

The Intermediate Step: Online Courses

Personally, I still believe that MOOCs will one day succeed. I think that in time, they’ll become one of the most efficient forms of higher education — but I think that it will take years of academics such as ourselves innovating, tweaking, and testing to get there. Until then, the easiest way to make massive open online courses success simply requires dropping the “massive” and “open” qualifiers:

  • As a student, online courses supplement my traditional courses — I can learn from faculty members working far away from the actual campus while maintaining a regular, focused schedule.
  • As a teacher, they enable me to interact with large virtual classes while still guaranteeing some minimum level of student knowledge. Sure, it takes some extra work to record my lectures and encode my notes — but that also allows me to innovate slowly in a controlled environment where I can measure the outcomes.
  • As an institution, offering online courses expands my pool of students — I can build satellite campuses near major cities with decent A/V setups in each room. I can also entice additional researchers — don’t want to relocate to the main campus? No problem! We need faculty at our satellite campuses as well, and you can always teach students at the main campus online.

So what will it take to get us from successful OCs to successful MOOCs? I can’t think of any silver bullet, but a two potential remedies might include:

  • Give meaningful certificates. Several of the major MOOC providers offer “certificates” (or something thereabouts). As a student, however, I don’t have any concrete method of evaluating the usefulness of a “Certificate in Artificial Intelligence”. How does my certificate compare to, say,  a “Bachelors of Science” or a “Masters of Arts” degree?
  • Toss out the lecture videos. If I want to spend 60 minutes watching a video, I’ll pull up the latest episode of NCIS. Especially for part-time or working students, dedicating a full hour to watching a dry, uninspired recording of a lecture can be tricky. Instead, break up the lecture into 5-10 shorter discussions, each presenting a single subtopic. Khan Academy does this better than any MOOC provider around — their videos on Differential Equations are the only reason I passed that class.

What do you think? What are the features of the most successful OCs that you’ve taken? And what about the MOOCs that you’ve taken? Comment below!

Published inGRAD 5104


  1. Remy Wehbe Remy Wehbe

    To be honest, i have never taken a MOOC, and up until now, i have hated every online course i have taken. However, one silver lining i see with MOOCs is that they are supposedly free. Since I’m not having to pay thousands of dollars , i will be willing to put the extra effort needed to deal with the inherent draw backs of the course (which you did a really good job highlighting). That being said, i would not consider studying a complete field through MOOCs, rather watching a few lectures about some interesting topic at best.

  2. Yang Song Yang Song

    Hey! I like your thoughts process. So I fully agree with you that the MOOCs are still more considered as supplemental tools for regular classroom teaching. It helps students build a better background knowledge before the classes and also expand their interests after the instruction. I do see some faculty members had successful experience with the addition of MOOCs to their regular classes. However, MOOCs fully taking over regular face to face classes is still too far away. Also, I am thinking some drawbacks for MOOCs are still due to the limitations of current technologies. If the future technology allow students to have a virtual reality MOOCs experience, that might help solve some issues you listed in this blog also. Thanks again for your sharing.

  3. Leslie E Jernegan Leslie E Jernegan

    Your post is fascinating. I’ve never spoken to someone with first-hand experience with MOOCs, and your detailed insight is quite valuable here.

    I’ve been on-board with your post from the moment I read “It’s not the “OC” that’s the problem — it’s the “MO”.” I agree! The benefits you’ve pointed out point to the benefit of accessibility—about making sure everyone has an equal shot to being properly educated. Seeing that our country certainly doesn’t ensure this, MOOCs provide a geographically, economically inclusive means of learning.

    I’m less concerned about students’ intrinsic motivation (though that’s not to be minimized) than I am about establishing a meaningful learning experience for everyone. I’m sure that, as technology advances, this will prove less of a problem—but, of course, we need to figure out how to improve technology for best suiting students’ needs (particularly, I’d argue, human-to-human interaction. Students’ needs, of course, would be classroom-dependent. I wonder for which topics MOOCs have been most/least effective so far.

  4. This was a really interesting post and I agree with many of the points that you bring up. The development of MOOCs is still happening. I think that we often think that new technology will just take over without remembering the long and sometimes painful process of development and implementation. This is especially true when there isn’t significant monetary motivators.

    One thing that I might challenge is: “dropping the ‘massive’ and ‘open’ qualifiers”

    Maybe they need to hold off on the “massive” but I don’t think they need to drop the “open” concept. It seems to me that institutions can take some of the intermediate steps without closing down their content. It takes almost zero effort to open the content once it is created. I think that starting small but staying open is a way that universities can start to build momentum for MOOC initiatives.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I really think you nailed some of the problems and suggested some great solutions. I am also a big fan/user of Khan academy. I really like the way they break the content into bite size portions that are easily manageable.

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