Clarifying My Feeling Toward MOOCs

In George’s recent blog post on the pending eduMOOC I am cited as being the dissenting voice in the current, broad-based love affair with MOOCs. (This lack of faith was also mentioned in the recent Chronicle story on the same topic.) So, for some reason I’m not fully certain of, I feel the need to set the record straight.

1. Do I think MOOCs can be effective in supporting learning?

Yes, absolutely. The MOOC is not terribly different from the learning I saw occurring in “Online Self-Organizing Social Systems” a decade ago, which we published an article about in 2002. I thought the possibility for informal learning in these settings was intriguing then. Add the new “Web 2.0 / social media revolution” that has happened since the article was published into the mix, and it’s downright exciting.

2. Do I think MOOCs can be effective in supporting learning for everyone?

No, absolutely. Research has shown time and again that the less well prepared a person is academically, the more supportive structure they need as they begin their intellectual foray into the area. Even once they know what material to study, less well prepared individuals are also famously poor at estimating their own level of understanding, making very poor decisions about when they’ve “gotten it” and can “safely” move on to the next topic.

Inasmuch as MOOCs seem to be allergic to structure, and go out of their way to avoid structures that would place any kind of requirement (or even moderately strong suggestion) on anyone, they appear to be an extremely poor fit for individuals who are not well prepared academically.

This conjecture can, of course, be disproven empirically – someone simply would need to run a “remedial math MOOC” or “remedial writing MOOC” and show that a large proportion of participants who had historically struggled in math or writing succeeded. Of course, that would require measuring learning, which is somewhat out-of-spirit with the MOOC movement…

3. Do I think MOOCs are the answer to learning-related problems globally?

No, absolutely. The people best positioned to succeed in MOOCs are people who are already prepared well academically. In other words, the people who are best served by MOOCs are people who have already had their foundational learning needs met elsewhere. Because so many of the learning-related problems globally concern access to high quality basic education (e.g., at the tertiary level, remedial math), MOOCs are not a solution to the problem of large and growing demand for higher education for people who are less well prepared.

Now, there are some very well prepared students who are denied access to additional educational opportunity, and MOOCs would serve them well. But this relatively small group of people is not generally who we are talking about when we speak of the global education crisis.

4. So is there any productive place for MOOCs?

Yes, absolutely. Technologically savvy, academically well-prepared people will likely benefit greatly from participating in MOOCs. And I see no problem with the rich getting richer when the world is not zero sum, and those gains don’t come at the expense of others. However, should we start to focus on MOOCs as an answer to large-scale, broader problems in education, we will do so at the expense of the less well prepared – exactly the people many of us in open education are interested in helping.

5. Do I hate the name MOOC?

Yes, absolutely. “Massive” does not modify “open” in any meaningful way. “Completely open” I would understand. I’m sure someone hoped to gain some recognition by remixing the popular term Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. But at least in that case the word “massively” does meaningfully modify the word “multiplayer.” There are 100s of 1000s of people in these games. “Massively multi-learner” might have made sense if the goal of MOOCs was to serve 100s of 1000s of people. However, “massive open” doesn’t mean anything. If you’re going to start a movement of sorts, at last pick a descriptive name. And MOOC just sounds goofy.


MOOCs are another tool in the box. If we start swinging them, hammer-like, at everything, we will do so to the detriment of students. We should be honest about the situations they may be appropriately used in, and make heavy use of them there. We shouldn’t make inappropriate claims about broader applicability.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Phillip Long

    I’m in violent agreement with you this time David. I have generally felt that MOOCs are ideally suited to those who have already achieved a skill set often attributed to successfully transiting a higher education program. It can be a liberating and informative environment for those who have the skills, organisational strategies, and persistence to structure their own PLE-like experience within the vague confines of a MOOC. But as you point out, it doesn’t do much for those who don’t already have these skills.

    That’s not a bad thing. building connections that you otherwise would not have made is a wonderful contribution MOOC’s can and do make. Bu when you’re los and your discrimination skills to recognise where your are and what you need to get on track are already lacking, it’s unlikely that MOOCs are a good choice. The one place that this might be turned on its head is if a community in a MOOC is explicitly committed to peer support and naturing. If it were possible to ‘construct’ the membership in a MOOC with people who are both predisposed and skilled in mentoring, as well as who have different levels of prior experience and disciplinary preparation, then one *might* have a good set of conditions for maximising the potential for peer instruction

    This is in effect what many of the active learning environments that have built up in the Scale-Up and TEAL models leverage. Having a pre-test on the disciplinary knowledge for an active learning course makes it possible to design learning teams in active learning courses that have “constructed variance” in the team’s disciplinary knowledge. The experience of TEAL suggests this does indeed improve the overall learning outcomes achieved. But this is a far cry from the MOOC. As you noted, MOOCs are “allergic to structure”.


  • Xavier Ochoa

    I have participated in a MOOC and, although I should be “academically prepared”, I lacked the sufficient discipline and focus to really get much out of it.

    I think that MOOC should not be “allergic to structure”, as it is the motto of your blog: pragmatism should triumph over zeal. If we combine the Openness + Some Structure + Peer Tutoring we should end up with something more globally useful.

    It will be interesting to hear about the results that OU-UK is having with their Learning Space experiment. For me, that is the perfect example of an OOC (agreed, Massive is just a result of being Open). Last time I check, they had a CS course in Moodle with more than 2.000 members, where old students are the tutors of new students. Will be great to found out what kind of learning (if any) is happening inside that course.

    It is always nice to find voices that say it as they see it.


  • dave cormier

    What would you consider good research questions for this course as an example of the kind of course that falls under your category of ‘remedial’?


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  • Scott Johnson

    eduMooc will be my third run at this at this interesting activity. Calling it a “course” might be too strong and I certainly don’t think of it as a model of the future of education. But for me, there is a sense of purpose and expectation of discovery in my wandering and if something catches my imagination I’ll certainly latch on to it. And then the connections wither, fail and it LOOKS like I’ve wasted my time, but I WAS interested and remain ready to try again.

    Maybe we should welcome MOOCs as a time and place on the life-long-learning path? Or a gathering of energy waiting to express itself? How about starting with the question “why are we drawn here” and then move of to what can we do with all these educated people milling about?


  • Glen

    I agree with some of the things in this post, except Maybe I see things as a bit opposite. To me, the MOOC seems to be only structure. I actually like the way these courses are set-up, they are great starting points…but that’s wehre they stop and want to remain. So far, the use of them seems too preoccupied with making sure “not to decide what students should know”.

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  • Mary

    What can a teacher educator accomplish by participating in a mooc if one is allowed to set one’s own goals, select one’s own tools, and has the ability access content and has the communicative, social, academic, and technological competence to interact with people and artifacts effectively?
    1. know how: example…develop awareness of and proficiency using new technologies in online and hybrid courses
    2. know who: example….learn who is working within a truly interdisciplinary context to design accessible, affordability, adaptable, and appropriate literacy and learning methods and contexts, etc…
    3.understanding that: there are competing and contradictory discourses related to informal, nonformal, formal, and workplace education and training, which need to be evaluated using a variety of criteria.
    4. Much more…
    (Five years of participation and observation within the network coordinated by George Siemens, Stephen Downes… and others and participation in the eduMOOC that is occurring in the summer of 2011.