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.