Lessons to be learned from MOOCs, 2 years out

Two Cheers for Web U!Online courses with very large enrollments have rapidly matured in the last two years, led largely by experiments outside mainstream academia by CourseraUdacity and edX. Ambitious educators, technologists, and funders have created courses on diverse topics, and over five million students worldwide have registered for classes. And 3% have completed the courses. What can we learn?

These Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) create “a strange paradox: these professors are simultaneously the most and least accessible teachers in history. And it’s not the only tension inherent in MOOCs,” writes A. J. Jacobs in the Sunday Review. Jacobs recently signed up for 11 courses (of which he completed 2), and graded his experience:

  • B+ for the professors, who tended to be charming and theatrical, trying to make the best of the virtual environment. There’s no patience for crummy professors, as in a math course canceled in 2012 by Udacity.
  • A for convenience, which is unmatched as students can learn from home, while commuting, worldwide. Start and stop anytime.
  • D for student-teacher interaction, which is virtually nonexistent. It’s one-way delivery from pop-star teachers, a virtual lottery to get a professor to answer a specific question.
  • B- for student-student interaction, which is vital for cementing the newly-learned knowledge, but even the best online discussions lack the immediacy of real life. There’s also a signal-to-noise problem, as well as trolling.
  • B- for assignments, which are heavily multiple-choice quizzes (great for computers to grade, bad for measuring learning), rampant with cheating, and lackluster when peer-review is used for essays.
  • B overall, which a generally positive experience, but minimal practical application when taking diverse subjects, and the courses don’t convey any credentials.

The hot air surrounding the rise of MOOCs is beginning to subside, and the ideas will percolate other fields.

On the academic end of the spectrum, traditional academia must and will respond to the pressures that are disrupting their industry. MOOCs are different in many ways from the “distance education” of the last few decades. How will universities compete with free? How will they justify being on-campus as the virtual experience improves? How much can the traditional, intimate classroom model of learning be bastardized before it looses all meaningful value, reduced to little more than watching TV?

This 18 minute TEDx talk by Michele Pistone discusses the future of higher education, and its historical origins:

(Read more comments on Pistone’s talk.)

Of greater interest to this blog, is informal and professional learning. This is the opposite situation, as MOOCs have much to teach us. If you are involved you outreach, take inspiration from MOOCs about:

  • Approaches to improving online learning (adding assessment, interactivity and community)
  • Adding social aspects (online forums, exploring peer review, and seeing what formats prod students to engage)
  • Implementation (user interfaces, software, marketing angles)

It’s all about packaging. The underlying elements (articles, videos, forums, etc.) have been on the internet for some time, and many organizations already have these ingredients at hand. What differentiates an “online course” is how it’s all combined, the outcomes (both learning objectives and certification), and the overall cohesiveness of the package.

How can you deliver learning with online courses? (And do you want to?)

For some more background, see also our articles on “What is an online course?” (Jan 2012), “Online courses for learning skills: MoMA, NYT & knitting” (Jan 2012; BTW: NYT recently canceled their online courses),  “Higher-ed courses with massive enrollments: A revolution starts” (Jan 2012), and “Online college courses, with and without the degree” (Feb 2011).

One comment on Lessons to be learned from MOOCs, 2 years out

IDEA » Online courses for developing the developing world

29 Jul 2013, 4:58 pm

[…] a small freelance job. To my surprise, several candidates advertised they had completed programming MOOCs. These were young programmers in their 20′s, in countries like Pakistan and Thailand, who […]


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