Published on 2013/09/06

Five Truths about MOOCs

Five Truths about MOOCs
A lot of myths have surrounded MOOCs since their launch into higher education’s mainstream last year, but many of these myths stray far from the truth.

The trend toward Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) has commanded attention from the press, higher education administrators, educators and students around the world. Yet there is tremendous confusion about what MOOCs are and what they can actually deliver to students. This confusion complicates the discussions about them and misleads nearly everyone.

MOOCs have rattled higher education’s cage. They are helping us to see how to escape the boundaries around the learning process that have inhibited us for so long. Let’s understand MOOCs and see them for what they are and are not.

To help create a better understanding of what MOOCs are, I’ve put together my top-five list of MOOC “nots.”

1. MOOCs are not online courses

But they sure look a lot like online courses! By definition, MOOCs are free, light on instructor supervision, with students not receiving individual attention from teachers. However, MOOCs continue to be considered as online courses for several reasons:

  • Most MOOCs, so far, are derived from credit-bearing courses at the undergraduate level;
  • Most MOOCs are so well designed that the learning pathway is clear for most students; and,
  • Much attention is being paid to the granting of credit for MOOCs so MOOCs might serve in place of online courses for some students.

Unfortunately, these factors add up to unrealistic expectations for MOOCs as well as misleading predictions about their impact.

2. MOOCs will not replace teaching

Instead, they can enhance teaching and provide access to learners around the world. MOOCs are created, not instructed, by professors and instructors. Highly motivated students may be able to master the material of MOOCs just as they might learn from books on their own. So far, the majority of MOOC students have been sophisticated consumers of higher education — those already possessing a degree. This is not typical in higher education because we know most students prefer the guidance of an instructor.

3. MOOCs are really not “open”

MOOCs, even in their purest form, lack many important aspects of full openness. For instance, a MOOC typically can’t be downloaded as a complete course and certainly can’t be used by institutions without a separate license. This also applies to individual parts of a course. The learning assets that make up a MOOC generally cannot be reused or modified for specific purposes.

4. MOOCs won’t be “massive” forever

The rapid expansion of MOOCs and MOOC providers, particularly those associated with higher education institutions, will divide the market even as the market grows. MOOCs will move from general education and undergraduate courses to special courses for defined audiences. While some of those audiences will be very large, the range of choice within any particular market will increase and diversify among subjects, providers and formats. Higher education administrators should adjust to the fact that the purpose of MOOCs will shift from institutional visibility to institutional service.

5. MOOCs will not disrupt higher education

However, they will threaten the status quo. In fact, MOOCs are more likely to help institutions and faculty improve learning by providing feedback on effective learning objects and practices, student learning outcomes and teaching methods.  MOOCs will accelerate learning innovation and provide new horizons for learning research.

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Readers Comments

Heather Willis 2013/09/06 at 9:52 am

I agree that MOOCs are not as disruptive as previously believed, but can be leveraged as a valuable testing ground for innovative teaching practices. There was an article I read in The EvoLLLution a few months ago about a few researchers who are teaching a MOOC in writing as part of a larger research project into MOOCs’ potential. I’m interested to read about the conclusions they reach.

Melanie Khan 2013/09/06 at 1:54 pm

Once MOOCs become less “massive,” as Matkin suggests will soon occur, they will also become more functional. Right now, MOOCs are trying to do too much for too many people. The next generation of MOOCs should be more focused and specialized. That way, it will be easier for industries to consider using this platform for professional development, or for institutions to grant credit for MOOCs.

Curtis Keller 2013/09/06 at 3:52 pm

These are some good thoughts on MOOCs and what they are not. I think this article goes a long way to dispelling some of the myths that surround this over-hyped learning platform. If we focus on these aspects that Matkin describes, we may start to see the potential of MOOCs to reach a wide audience and be less fearful of their impact.

George 2013/09/09 at 4:19 pm

Hi: The term “MOOC” was coined by Professor David Cormier. See his YouTube presentation titled “What is a MOOC” to hear what the real meaning of MOOCs was intended to be:!

Also see this article in the CT eLearning Report about reclaiming its true vision:

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