Nuke the MOOCs

Is this guy taking a MOOC?
Is this guy taking a MOOC?

After a rash of enthusiasm about Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the counter-reaction is setting in. Only a tiny percentage of the hoards of people enrolling in classes actually complete them. Many students drop out because they have competing demands for their time; others get bored by the inability to have meaningful interaction with the professor or anyone else, even on online chat boards.

Rachelle DeJong enrolled in two MOOCs and declared them massively boring. Here’s what she wrote for “Minding the Campus“:

One of the main defects in MOOCs is the sterile, disengaged character that afflicts many online courses,  especially massive online courses. If a course is to be more than an intellectual IV dripping raw facts into the mind, it requires articulation of questions and synthesizing of answers, discussion and debate over claims and analyses, and some form of intellectual community that helps turn information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom. Mere physical presence doesn’t guarantee any of these things, of course, but they do depend in varying ways on personal connection, which is much harder to replicate online.

Undoubtedly, there will be a niche for MOOCs, but I don’t see massively open online courses overthrowing conventional education. More likely the industry will gravitate to blended models that integrate computer learning, online learning and personal interaction — a model that combines the advantages of personal contact with the economies made possible by education.

The experimentation will continue…


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12 responses to “Nuke the MOOCs”

  1. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    I am not surprised.

    Although addicted to long distance learning via ‘the Great Courses way”, my experience with the Coursera format was disappointing. My overall sense was that they were trying to do far too much with too limited means.

    In my experience, long distance learning can be great learning tools akin to sitting in a great lecture hall learning from a great professor lecturing on a great subject. But they do not replace the small seminar or class wherein the learners participate in an intense interaction with a great professor.

    Quite likely, the search for the highly effective hybrid will be a long path littered with trial and error. Still, I still suspect the impact of long distance learning on higher education will be enormous and enormously beneficial.

    One problem will be the ever present quick buck artist. But we have plenty of those in the current system. But perhaps the public nature of long distance learning will allow us to more strictly enforce quality.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      For a far more detailed discussion of these issues please see this website’s Online Education’s Dearth of Dialogue article that is found at:

  2. Here’s the deal.. Remember the Dot Com bust? Remember all these companies convinced that people would be buying all kinds of stuff online – and they went broke?

    what happened?

    they saw the potential but failed in understand how to properly implement it.

    I think its the same thing with MOOC – and I’m not sure I buy the “sterile” thing because we do have “GO to Meeting” for attending lectures in virtual mode.. we do have the ability to communicate with professors via phone/email/text… and the medium lends itself very well to multi-media which in things like math/calculus is a major step forward in my view.

    I’d also mention that IPAD type tablets are making their way into k-12 schools, even 2nd grade where the big challenge is to find the correct software for kids to learn.. which is much more of a difficult challenge than many realize. Like most other successful “computerizations” – it takes two highly skilled people – the software developer AND the content expert.

    A software developer has no clue how a 5 year old “learns” but a teacher has no clue how to write really good software. it takes both.

    the other thing the tablets can do is “adjust” the material to the needs of the individual student. Determine where they are weak and focus on those areas.

    at the same time – that software is “capturing” the performance of the kid so that the teacher can download it and analyze what the kid has learned, what they are still learning and what they might need real human help on.

    these tablets do not need to be on the internet – when the kid is using them. THe kid can take them home and do the exercises… bring it back to school – connect to wi fi – upload their work to the teachers computer and download the next lessons.

    I also have asked every now and then – what the PURPOSE of a teacher is – and the MOOC issue is helping us to better understand that role.

    but we have not scratched the surface of MOOC yet.. I do not think.

    a bright kid living in Franklin, Va should be able to reach a far higher level of achievement via MOOC than just being limited to the local school.

    The same would go for bright kids everywhere who are in age-appropriate classes but the material is not advanced enough for their level.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Great comments.

  3. I’m quite convinced that MOOC will revolutionize education but not before we better understand what the essential role of an instructor is – in an electronic world – and not before we figure out how to properly accredit credentials of individuals who received their education via MOOC.

    Invariably, when you computerize an industry – you change it’s business model. it fundamentally changes the way they do business and businesses
    and institutions are resistant to change. Look at how long online news has been around and the print media still does not know exactly how to evolve their businesses….. to online.

  4. virginiagal2 Avatar

    I’m not so convinced that MOOCs will be quite the revolution that it’s cracked up to be. There’s a pretty good article at the WSJ discussing pros and cons – basically, MOOCs plus classroom result in increased learning – MOOCs alone result in less completion (around 10%), less learning, less satisfaction. Flipped classrooms, where you listened to the lecture online and worked on the problems in class, resulted in increased learning.

    One big concern for me is mass grading – computerized grading of essays, for example, tends to reward verbosity and ornate sentence structure, not clear thought. Hemingway might do very poorly on a machine graded writing test.

    Similarly, machine or mass grading of programming is likely to criticize unique or brilliant thought that the graders didn’t anticipate, and reward the ordinary and mundane. Not a way to move the field forward.

    Another concern is the loss of connections – both human connectedness and loss of longtime connections that build up a social and business personal network. That matters in life.

    MOOC does not equal online learning, though. Online learning as done by, say, UMUC (the online branch of UMd) is pretty good. They have online classrooms, a limited number of people per class and quite a bit of contact with your professor, many of them work in the fields they teach (so, eek, adjuncts), and there is an emphasis on team research projects in upper level and graduate classes.

    MOOCs not being the end-all and be-all does NOT mean that online learning is bad – it means, like anything else, a good idea also needs good execution.

  5. I would not disagree. MOOC will not replace bricks/mortar or real in-person instruction – but it will enhance it especially for those who do “online”.

    not clear about the difference between MOOC and “online learning”. what is the difference between them?

    In terms of testing – I’m not sure what is unique or bad about MOOC verses traditional… choose a method to assess… use it on all or not per your defined policies.

    perhaps we need to characterize what we think MOOC is and compare and contrast to current traditional and online – pros/cons.

    I think some folks, myself included do not see a distinct difference between MOOC and “online” so some further enlightenment might be useful.

    1. virginiagal2 Avatar

      “Traditional” online learning is essentially a classroom online. The format I am familiar with is an online portal where lectures (text or video) is shared, where assignments are given, and a forum where class members answer questions and communicate directly with each other and the professor. Typically there are weekly assignments, periodic projects or exams, and participation points for participation in the forum. At UMUC, the undergraduate exams are proctored at a Sylvan learning center or some such – basically the exam is opened by them and they mail it back to the instructor. Graduate level assignments are typically projects so aren’t really amenable to proctoring.

      You have a limited number of students per class (in the 15-30 range) and you have ongoing direct interaction with the professor and each other. Classes are available both in person in various places in Maryland and elsewhere and online and no distinction is made between them.

      Undergraduate tuition, in state, is 258 per hour, out of state, 499 per credit hour. If you want a degree, you can do it entirely online. For 120 hours, that would be nearly 31,000 for a 4 year degree, plus books and some not too onerous fees – about 60,000 for out of state. You have 7 years to finish the degree. They take credit from other institutions so are a way to finish an interrupted degree. Graduate tuition is 458/659 in state/out of state, per credit hour.

      I am pointing out UMUC because I’ve taken classes online through them, not to push that particular school or that particular implementation.

      Downsides for this and most online – there is not a complete selection of majors, and in general lab sciences and the more esoteric liberal arts are not available. Also, any form of online only does not have the full college experience.

      MOOCs are very large open courses, where everyone gets lectures, often from very famous professors. They are usually in video format. Assignments are not graded by the professor but are often “crowd-graded” by the class, with the right answer moving up, or graded automatically by machine. There is essentially no contact with the professor, because he can’t effectively communicate with and get to know thousands of students. Because of the large number of other students, it’s more difficult to get to know other students, even virtually.

      They are experimenting with some academic areas that are not well-represented online (such as the MSCS at Ga Tech and upper level math courses and some uncommon liberal arts classes). My main concerns for the format are the grading and the lack of professor/classmate contact. I think education is important enough to have classes, especially upper level and graduate classes, graded by a person. A grad student, okay, I can buy that – but the rest of the class or an algorithm, all I can think of is the (IMHO not so hot) SAT essay grading criteria.

      Most MOOC classes are free – some are now being charged for credit – and Ga Tech is experimenting with a 7,000 online MSCS. I wouldn’t mind taking the MSCS online, but my initial thought is that a traditional online format would work better.

      Also, I am concerned that by doing it en masse, you lose the chance to make friendships and connections with professors and classmates, which is a strength of more traditional structure – and an important one.

      My personal cynical opinion is that the MOOC model is catching on because while traditional online is quite profitable for colleges, MOOCs are financed by venture capital and they are profitable for investors.

      1. All other things being equal, participating in a class that allows interaction with the professor (or a grad student) is preferable to a class in which no such interaction is possible. I recall Introductory Economics and Introductory Biology courses at UVa in which I was one student among 400 or so. People could skate through a class with zero interaction with the professor. I can’t remember who graded our tests — probably graduate students. I don’t see the MOOC experience being a whole lot different. That’s fine for survey courses, but not OK for more advanced classes.

        I also recall a year-long honors seminar in history that had made 20 students and *two* professors. I probably gained as much from those two classes as all my other classes combined. You could never replicate that with a MOOC. It could go online conceivably, but I’ll say that the personal interaction was vital to its success.

        MOOCs are just one tool in the toolbox. It can’t substitute for a seminar any more than a hammer can substitute for a wrench. But, then, MOOCs are only one type of online learning experience. There are many others. We need to explore the full panoply of possibilities.

  6. Antoine31 Avatar

    I think you folks are being short sighted about the potential. What is stopping MOOCs from overcoming these problems you’ve mentioned and becoming more social. There are the possibilities of paid tutors or maybe community colleges licensing the classes and provided onsite seminars, teacher interaction, teacher grading. These community colleges could alter the course (maybe within agreed upon limits) by dropping the automated quizzes in favor of group work or essay writing a component. Literally just thinking out loud and then I found this
    Also, if you had other educators using MOOCs in a blended fashion, they could give insightful feedback to the professor who designed the MOOC course.
    What: Better connection between students and acknowledging achievement and involvement.
    Queue System:
    Students who like learning on their own can start a course immediately. Students that learn better through peers sign up for a queue. When some arbitrary number (let’s say 500 students) sign up for the queue all the students receive a notification “queue filled. Would you like to take the course?”
    User Profiles:
    Using something similar to Mozilla’s Open Badges there could be a course completion badge and then additional badges like “Peer Group”, “Respectful Group Participant”, “Prepared Group Participant” “Forum Moderator”. These would show that you not only completed the course, but that you did so with additional workload and in a group. You respected your team members in discussions and that you prepared for discussions by reading and taking notes. The team member badges would be given by your group at the end of a course. As you build up this online reputation than more people will seek you out to be a part of their small groups and you can join higher quality groups with people who have also built up their reputations.
    User Profiles Part Two:
    There are many potential roles people could have. Users who have completed “Introduction to Java Programming” could be notified when a new queue has been reached and a large number of students are ready to begin the class. Now before you laugh and say, “who is going to volunteer for that?” think about all of the teachers who retire, but still want to teach in some capacity, think about people who are incredibly passionate about maybe one or two subjects and want to share their knowledge. Their role could be something akin Teachers Assistants and forum moderators. Having completed the course they could answer questions, and in doing so refresh their learning and practice teaching. If they gave good advice to students or answered a question well, then users would be prompted to give them a score on effectiveness as a teacher’s assistant.
    Here are some possible jobs they and current students could do:
    -Maintain a class wiki
    -Answer specific questions to mini quizzes
    -Read through the questions regarding certain problems and identifying common mistakes and then write “hints” for the many users who don’t post questions but read the questions already left by other users. In a programming course these hints could be about syntax, algorithm design, and links to websites that discuss the relevant topic in more detail. This way users don’t simply copy and paste working code, but are giving a hand when they are experiencing problems and encouraged to find the solution on their own.
    Small Groups:
    That pool of 500 students is then divided into learning groups. Maybe ten students to each group (there must be research showing what is an effective range for small group sizes). The members of the small groups then sign a Peer learning agreement where they make a commitment to their group about expectations. (Maybe groups could decide how quickly they plan on completing the course based on personal time availability). The groups would then hold seminars (through video conferencing or chat), provide peer review for each other’s work or essays, and ultimately rate each other.
    If many small groups start at one time, then students can move to new groups for various reasons. Some that I can think of: personality conflicts, their group all quit, a large gap in ability or commitment.
    For Students:
    For many learners having a community of peers is an effective way to learn. Discussion with peers and learning at teaching others closer to your abilities is helpful. It also builds community and relationships. Who knows, people might meet romantic partners or future business colleagues or friends. In areas with large populations it might be possible to build a small group that lives in the city and then physically meet for discussions or study sessions. Imagine a coffee shop with an official Saturday meetup where folks all taking Udacity courses, meet with their small groups to talk and study. That would be amazing.
    For MOOC providers:
    One of the chief complaints that I hear about MOOCs is that they don’t provide the intellectual environment that real college campuses do. You don’t have a group of peers who have your same passions and are dealing with the same work load.

    For Society:
    If MOOCs became more of a social activity, then maybe a subculture of people who make MOOCs their lifelong hobby. Maybe you have MOOC friends all over the world you who you say, “Hey Ananda I really loved taking the linear algebra with you. I wanted to a refresher of Calculus and there is a course queue starting for one. Would you like to take it together. I already talked to Sven in and he signed up. We think we could put six hours in a week. Does that sound reasonable?”

    1. Antoine31, thanks for your thoughts. I find your suggestions entirely plausible. Some ideas might work, others might not. But trial and error is the path forward. That’s what I find so exciting about MOOCs/online learning — there is so much freedom to experiment. Five years from now, we’ll be thinking very differently about this than we do today. That’s the beauty of it.

  7. Antoine31 Avatar

    I apologize, this was originally tailored to specifically Udacity, but I think it holds true for most MOOCs I have come across. If the moderator could change the paragraph entitled “For Udacity” to “For MOOC Providers”

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