Have MOOCs failed?

While I was watching the Canada’s National History Forum 2013, I was really taken by Dave Cormier‘s talk about MOOC’s (Massive Opean Online Courses) and how they facilitate wider information sharing and collaboration, and hear the perspectives of many people from different cultures than one may not otherwise hear in the traditional, local classroom–over 100,000 enrollments in some cases.  In my experience with online education, I was a bit skeptical of Cormier gushing about MOOCs.  I’ve never participated in a MOOC, but I’ve had some experience in online education having taken one through the Master of Library and Information Science program at Western University (I took “Information Behaviour”), having worked as a customer service rep at BYU Independent Study, one of the largest distance education providers in the United States (roughly 120,000 students were enrolled in various courses in 2010); and having taken many courses at both the undergraduate and graduate with an online component (e.g. OWL, Blackboard, Brain Honey, online textbook/quizzes, etc.).  For the most part, I personally have been dissatisfied with the online education so far.  I have been frustrated with the (dys)functionality of the applications, the lack of connectivity and collaboration with classmates (simple online forums don’t cut it for me), and the lack of in-person contact with professors.  In short, the online experience has not been good to me, and I certainly loath the idea of taking another online course.

Prior to reading this blog post, I read a short article by Dave Kernohan called “Making Sense of MOOCs” published in Jisc.  As I suspected, there is more than one type of MOOC.  Kernohan identified three general types:

xMOOCs involve video lectures from professors, students marking each other’s coursework, but may require students to work at the pace, and within the structure of an institution.

cMOOCs emphasize collaboration and building community and shift away from the classroom model of education and instead participants communicate through social media such as blogs and Twitter.  These are mainly recommended for advanced learners in the subject at hand.

Open Boundary students study alongside fee-paying students with both taking advantage of a wider range of ideas and culture, and a larger variety of resources.

Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, a for-profit company that provides MOOC platforms, recently admitted that the MOOC model is not effective for teaching undergraduates because of a recent Udacity pilot project at San Jose University.  The study showed that many students failed, the monetary cost was too high, Udacity was over-hyped, and other reasons not shared.

As tempted as I was to say “HA!” to Udacity and San Jose University, and feel smug and vindicated, it made me ponder what the term “success” really meant.  Really, it depends on what the student and the course creator seek to achieve through the MOOC–these aren’t necessarily the same thing, by the way.

Jisc’s e-communications office Tom Mitchell, observed of a recent MOOC in which he was participating, “…I am enjoying being able to study in a way that totally suits my schedule and works around my day job…as a freely available source of genuine knowledge and peer review it is really rather good.”

What are some reasons why someone might participate in a MOOC? Because, if they want Tom’s experience of having a flexible study schedule, a freely available source of knowledge, and peer review, then I would say that particular MOOC was a complete success.  However, if you’re a San Jose University student looking to coast through an online course and get your “B” and leave, then maybe that MOOC was a failure, especially if you’re one of the unfortunate ones that failed.

Now, I do realize that my two examples are like comparing oranges to tangerines since I was comparing a for-credit MOOC with a non-credit MOOC, but my point applies to all MOOCs: success and failure are very subjective terms. Whether you’re a student preparing to take a course, or a professor in the midst of creating a course, you ought to figure out what your desired outcome is, and set goals that will (hopefully) lead you to having that experience.  If you achieve what you set out to do, there is no failure there.

Some (non-credit) MOOC administrators are concerned with having extremely low completion rates.  On the surface, it would appear that the course was sub-par since few completed it. The problem with this thinking is that these administrators apparently don’t have an idea as to why their students took their course, maybe course completion wasn’t necessarily the end goal of the students’ participation.  Students could have taken the course for a variety of reasons including: to explore a new subject, have a fun learning experience, learn only a small concept, or even, impress a boyfriend or girlfriend. Who knows? Administrators will have to come up with some metrics to measure why students take courses and if they achieved those goals, then, administrators can properly assess the value of their course.  One thing they could do is administer a student opinion survey at the beginning and end of the course.

In conclusion, I don’t think we can definitively say whether MOOCs have failed, or had success, due to the lack of course evaluation on both the student and the administrator ends.  I also feel like it’s unfair to make any sweeping generalizations about MOOCs because of the various types that exist, and the demographics of students that take them, as well as the variety subject-matter.


One thought on “Have MOOCs failed?

  1. Good points Joel. I agree with the issues you brought up, especially the part about students potentially taking a MOOC as a bird course. Online education programs are often promoted as easy, get-a-degree-in-a-second type of alternatives to more traditional schooling…so it may be hard to get rid of the stigma attached to MOOCs. I know that they’re supposed to be free, but maybe if they had some sort of minimum sign-up fee, that would motivate more students to complete the course.. if not, it may at least motivate them to offer a reason if they choose to quit or drop-out.

    I’ve read a few positive reviews like Tom Mitchell’s and it seems like there are a lot of benefits to take from MOOCs and the people who actually complete the course felt they gained something. I’m tempted to join one, but I don’t want to end up not completing it like so many others. I also worry about the technical issues too. It’ll be interesting to see how things change for MOOCs and if they get more popular with time.

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