Much-Hyped, MOOCs Maneuver Toward Version 2.0

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Since then-Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun opened his Fall 2011 Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course to tens of thousands students around the world, there has been a lot of interest and excitement surrounding MOOCs, or massive, open online courses.

Thrun went on to found a for-profit online university, Udacity, with the backing of some of Silicon Valley’s most influential investors. Two of Thrun’s former Stanford colleagues launched a competitor, Coursera, with the support of the granddaddy of all venture capital firms, Kleiner Perkins. Not to be outdone, the most prestigious universities on the East Coast set up the nonprofit edX.

It seemed clear that the future of education would be in MOOCs. And who wouldn’t want to make lectures given by the best teachers at top universities available online to students in developing countries and poor and remote parts of the United States? MOOC enthusiasts also believe the format can deliver improved professional development by freeing workers to pursue their studies at their (or their employer’s) convenience.

But a few years into the courses’ existence, research on their effectiveness has begun painting a grim picture of their ability to educate students. Can the courses iterate to overcome the challenges?

Pedagogical Woes
A statistic commonly cited to disparage MOOCs is that just a small fraction of students who sign up for a MOOC actually complete it. It’s true, but also misleading since a wide range of students and classes are lumped together. Coursera considers students who never participate as window shoppers, but has shortened many of its courses to rein in later dropouts.

But what really matters is how well those who finish MOOCs learn the material at hand. And, alas, they don’t learn very well, the evidence indicates. Lectures, the core feature of most MOOCs, are not effective either in person or online, according to Fred Martin, a professor of computer science at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, and Clint Kennedy, a doctoral student in educational psychology at the University of Connecticut and the CTO of a local public school district.

webpage on a tablet pc“The pedagogy embedded in the MOOCs is known to not work; lecturing at people across the board is known to not work,” Martin told Singularity Hub.

Lectures are still dominant at many universities, but the real learning happens in the smaller discussion groups. Community college students who participated in online sections were about 5 percent less likely to receive a C or better than their peers in face-to-face sections, according to a study undertaken by Columbia University Teacher’s College and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Most MOOCs use message boards as a substitute for in-class dialogue, but the interaction students have on message boards is largely superficial; there’s often no real intellectual debate, Martin said. (The “connectivist” style of MOOC overrides that problem but isn’t the model in wide use.) Debate and process are what bring about learning, and it’s difficult to imagine how to replicate those in a MOOC.

Testing is another challenge. To confirm that students have learned something (if not to motivate them to learn it in the first place), a course must offer a test. But with tens of thousands of students, the test can’t require much human grading.

MOOCs first sprung up in the fields of math and science—areas where a computer can grade quizzes and problem sets fairly well. The computer is well positioned to determine if a bit of computer code works properly or not, for example.

But in humanities courses, there’s no room for essays. Commonly, multiple-choice quizzes are offered, but that format is known to be an ineffective way to measure student learning.

“As we move into an information economy where innovation and creativity are the most important edges we have internationally, then we need to give students assessments that allow them to be innovative and creative. But where there’s no one answer, there’s no way to grade that automatically,” Shanna Smith Jaggars, the assistant director of Columbia’s Teacher’s College and the lead author of its influential study on online learning, told Singularity Hub.

Between lectures, light student discussion and make-shift testing, the MOOC format often ends up smoothing out the complexity of complicated material in order to deliver what might best be thought of as a minimum viable educational product.

“The basic format of the MOOC is where someone systematically explains something to you and basically makes it non-problematic. The whole idea that complicated stuff is non-problematic is wrong. Learning is messy and trying to make it not messy is not fair and doesn’t work,” Martin said.

professional-development-moocThe ideal student
But with all of the information on the Web and all of the smart people in the world who already use it to learn, MOOCs won’t be a total wash. It’s just that they mainly work for people who already excel at learning.

“It’s not going to democratize education because it won’t work for people who haven’t already learned how to learn,” said Martin.

“You’re going to get the token example of a student in Africa who happens to be a self-starter, but for every one of those you’re going to get thousands of people who didn’t know what to do and dropped out,” said Kennedy.

But the format does work for students who are generally academically successful and for those with a strong motivation to learn and/or strong support for their work in the course, the experts said. Professional development is the obvious sweet spot.

Even if most successful MOOC students fit that profile, some will fall outside of it, giving the courses some wider reach.

“It’s still possible that with billions of people in the world there are many millions of them that fit the profile—a highly motivated self-starter in India or Beijing,” Jaggars said.

Toward MOOC 2.0
MOOC platforms have certainly seen the same research and are moving to address it. The question is, can they up the educational ante and protect the profit margins that keep all but the non-profit edX in business?

Coursera has quietly moved to shorter courses to reduce dropouts, a shift that will have negligible effects on its margins. edX is exploring more radical changes to the existing MOOC model. Specifically, it’s begun offering SPOCs, or small, private online courses. Students had to apply for a law school course offered in the format, demonstrating commitment and competence in English. Five hundred students were accepted — still many more than could fit in a brick-and-mortar lecture hall, but far fewer than participated in Thrun’s groundbreaking MOOC.

Another experimental practice involves scheduling some live discussions, where students who are interested can dial in to a teleconference, Kennedy said.

online-learningOnline lecture material has been shown to work very well in conjunction with in-person classes — so-called “blended learning.” But this format, too, cuts into the potential profits of MOOCs.

“Blended learning is shown to be highly effective — as good as conventional face-to-face learning — but it’s not cheaper. You still have to pay faculty and graders,” Martin said.

Because companies can provide the structure, motivation and face-to-face conversation that makes MOOCs a better learning environment, it's likely they will permeate professional development long before they disrupt traditional education. The original promise that MOOCs will deliver college education to non-traditional students — and turn a profit in the process — will be much harder to realize.

Still, companies are starting to look for winning use cases for the online format. Which means MOOCs are entering the trough in the tech "hype cycle" between the original excitement and the payoff when viable applications emerge. While what emerges is rarely as cool as what was once promised, MOOCs have enough demand and interest that they're sure to reach the other side somehow.

Images: Andresr, janevision, Hasloo Group Production Studio and Stuart Miles via

Cameron Scott

Cameron received degrees in Comparative Literature from Princeton and Cornell universities. He has worked at Mother Jones, SFGate and IDG News Service and been published in California Lawyer and SF Weekly. He lives, predictably, in SF.

Discussion — 4 Responses

  • mikemcfarlane October 31, 2013 on 10:45 am

    I’m one of the dropouts. I’ve started quite a few of them, but rarely finish. They are usually really boring even when I am interested in the subject, and do not deliver the content I actually need to use what I have learned. Essentially too much theory, and little to no practical/applied learning. As for the likes of some top unis who have a video camera at the back of the class and just record the lectures….
    Codeacademy on the other hand I did everyday till I completed the course, and I was actually sad when it finished. It teaches theory in bit size chunks, then backs the theory up with practical tutorials.
    I think MOOC are the future, but only if the product is right, and it’s not right now. IMHO. (I do appreciate the time and effort people put in to deliver them.)

    • Dirk Maes mikemcfarlane November 1, 2013 on 3:53 pm

      Fully agree.
      Online learning needs the have small chuncks to make it digestable, because you have a shorter attentionspan if you’re just sitting behind a computer screen and gamification as a means to keep your right cereberal hemisphere from saying “fuck this shit”.

      But you can’t get around the fact that this is not the ideal way of learning things. A classroom, assignments with dealines and to be evaluated from real experts instead of expert system is just better than what an online course can offer, regrettably.

  • khanb November 2, 2013 on 3:23 pm

    With the emergence of new communication and computing technologies, we are becoming increasingly accustomed to new buzzwords to describe technology based learning. One of the latest buzzwords is “MOOC,” short for “Massive Open Online Course.”

    MOOCs are good for learners, especially those from other nations, who can take courses from celebrated U.S. universities including, but not limited to: Harvard, Stanford, and MIT. Who knows, in the future, students may even be able to get the educational experiences acquired through MOOCs validated/accredited by professionals who act as intermediaries between students and the educational institutions.

    While there are benefits, MOOCs currently face several challenges. Milheim (2013) cites four major problems associated with MOOCs: (1) high dropout rates; (2) lack of a financial model; (3) credentialing; and (4) academic integrity. However, failure in e learning courses is more often associated with poor execution of some aspects of the initial project design and dissemination/implementation (Romizowski, 2004).
    By their definition, MOOCs are delivered through an open and distributed e-learning environment. The design, development, implementation, and evaluation of open and distributed learning systems, such as MOOCs, require a thoughtful analysis and investigation of how to use the attributes and resources of the Internet and digital technologies in concert with instructional design principles and issues important to various dimensions of online learning environments (Khan, 2012).

    After reflecting on various factors important to open and distributed learning environments, I developed A Framework for E-learning ( back in 1997 for Web-Based Instruction, and it is applicable to MOOCs, as a form of WBI. This eight dimensional framework encompasses various online learning issues, including: pedagogical, technological, interface design, evaluation, management, resource support, ethical, and institutional. Various factors discussed in the eight dimensions of the framework can provide guidance in the design, development, delivery, and evaluation of open and distributed learning environments such as MOOCs. The next section briefly describes each dimension.

    The pedagogical dimension refers to teaching and learning. This dimension addresses issues concerning content analysis, audience analysis, goal analysis, media analysis, design approach, organization and methods and strategies of e-learning environments.
    The technological dimension examines issues of MOOCs’ technology infrastructure, hardware, and software.
    The interface design refers to the overall look and feel of MOOCs. The interface design dimension encompasses page and site design, content design, navigation, and usability testing.
    The evaluation dimension refers to both assessment of learners and evaluation of MOOC environments.
    The management of MOOCs refers to the maintenance of the learning environment and its global large-scale distribution.
    The resource support dimension examines the online support and resources required to foster meaningful learning environments.
    The ethical considerations relate to social and political influence, cultural diversity, bias, geographical diversity, learner diversity, information accessibility, etiquette, and legal issues.
    The institutional dimension is concerned with issues of administrative affairs, academic affairs, and student services related to e-learning.

    I encourage individuals involved in developing and delivering MOOCs to globally diverse learners to address the issues encompassing the eight critical dimensions of the framework for a greater return-on-investment and higher retention.

    Khan, B. H. (Ed.). (2012). User Interface Design for Virtual Environments: Challenges and Advances. Hershey, PA: IGI Global Publishing.

    Milheim, W. D. (May-June, 2013). Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): Current applications and future potential. Educational Technology, pp. 38-42.

    Romiszowski, A. J. (2004). How’s the elearning baby? Factors leading to success or failure of an educational technology innovation. Educational Technology, 44(1), 5-27.

    Badrul H. Khan, Ph.D., is an author, educator, and consultant in the field of e-learning. His 1997 bestselling book, Web-Based Instruction, was important in paving the way for the field of e-learning. In recognition for his work in this field the Egyptian E-Learning University Council has appointed him as an honorary distinguished professor of e-learning. He has held faculty positions at the University of Texas at Brownsville and the George Washington University; and served as founding Directors for UTB EdTech and GWU EdTech Cohort programs (Website:

  • sharptooth November 6, 2013 on 7:58 pm

    I’m a “drop-out” as well. I rarely complete a course I sign up for. Know why? I’m typically after specific information, and with a no-pressure attitude to learning, why would I waste my time passing exams on superfluous information? As an example, I recently took a course in digital music production. I was after the material that would be covered in week six. I powered through weeks 1-5, and I learned a decent amount, but felt no pressure to prove that I understood it, so I didn’t take quizzes. It was of interest to me, but grading could screw off for all I cared. And you know what? I learned what I came to learn. For free.

    On the contrary, in my college courses, I’m graded on all sorts of shit I never use, and the courses largely teach to the test, which is incredibly regrettable. Courses cost far too much and I can’t say the learning is any deeper than I get in a MOOC, though it’s accredited, which I guess counts for something… to someone.