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Massive Open Online Courses: Fabulous or Doomed?

Do they work? Can people learn from them? Are they a colossal waste of time?

12-05 Persimmon Leaves

Can so many learners at once find value?

Here’s my answer:

It depends.

I posted a link to an article about types of MOOCs the other day, and two people I respect jumped into the comments to suggest that MOOCs are just a bad idea… Instructional Design Nightmares. A big way to do a bad thing.

I liked the article’s suggestion of ways to think about MOOCs (but was skeptical of the general enthusiasm expressed for MOOCs as a delivery system):

  • Scheduled versus self-paced
  • Moderated versus non-moderated
  • Fully online versus blended (or hybrid)

Here’s the thing. Many courses delivered as MOOCs may be terrible. In fact, much of the online training I’ve evaluated in the past many years has been (I’m sorry) less than great (often mediocre, bad, or worse than bad).

It’s not easy to design or deliver online training that works…. no matter the number of students. It’s possible, just not easy.

The average dropout rate for MOOCs is huge (more than 90%). Part of that is because many people sign up out of curiosity or just to see what they’re like.

Also, after years of passive learning in our school system, many learners don’t have the motivation to take a free course with no binding requirements and finish it.

But, MOOCs can be great for students who figure things out on their own, anyway. In other words, for people who didn’t really need them in the first place.

Still… just because something is massive (lots of students), online, and open to anybody with an Internet connection… This doesn’t mean that people can’t learn from it.

Lectures are not always bad. Sometimes an expert can synthesize a great deal of information and present it in a way that gives you a head start in learning about that topic. I can remember a few teachers and presenters who did this so well I wanted to capture every word.

So whether that special lecture is delivered to 20 or 400 or 120,000 students at a time, it can have value.

Lectures alone are not generally enough for people to be able to learn a new skill. Usually that requires practice and feedback… and a lecture setting is not usually the place for that.

So, is it possible for MOOCs to be designed in a way that encourages practice and useful feedback? Potentially? Yes. Practically? Difficult. Depending….

If a lecture, some individual study, possibly a study group, maybe some exercises (with the equivalent of answers in the back of the book) and an online quiz are all you need, that could work.

But nobody is going to grade 120,000 papers or projects. Not without a lot of help. In at least some MOOCs, the instructors turn to peer-review strategies for giving feedback. Does this have potential? Yes… but without strong guidance (and pretty much always for advanced topics) peer review devolves into the ignorant leading the misinformed. Not the best scenario.

However, you can build on a great lecture. I have a college-professor friend who is taking advantage of the lectures available for free, from leaders in his field… and then structuring excellent learning experiences in his classroom for his students. That approach can work for a variety of other audiences, too: corporate, military, healthcare. With organization and initiative, it can scale.

There are a number of ways to make sure that using all or part of a MOOC format can be useful for students. And of course, it depends on the goals of the institution and the learners, which will vary widely.

It’s important to remember that it’s not the delivery system (MOOC), it’s the instructional design that makes the learning more likely to happen—or not.

Just because some early attempts at using MOOCs are terrible, that does not mean that every course delivered this way is now and will forever be terrible. In fact, it looks like some of them have a lot to offer. With great design and some creativity, this can improve greatly over time.


Post | What Style of MOOC Is Right for You?

Post | Serious eLearning Manifesto

Post | (Ry Rivard, 2013) Measuring the MOOC Dropout Rates

Article | Will MOOCs Be Flukes?

Column | (Tom Friedman, 2012). Come the Revolution

Site | Coursera

Review | Coursera vs Udemy vs Lynda: Online Courses Compared

Post | (Donald Clark, 2014) Employers See Strong potential in MOOCs—New Research

Post | (Donald Clark, 2014) MOOC Physics Students Outperform Campus Students

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