Published on 2014/09/02

The Three Biggest Misconceptions about MOOCs: How These Courses Can Benefit the Institution

The Three Biggest Misconceptions about MOOCs: How These Courses Can Benefit the Institution
It could take decades for the true impact of MOOCs to be truly assessed, but there are some misconceptions currently hampering their ability to reach their potential.
So much has been said and written about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) it’s possible to read just about any forecast in the tea leaves: MOOCs will save higher education or destroy it. MOOCs are yesterday’s news or have not yet begun to show their potential.

The truth likely lies somewhere in between.

We may not know the true value of MOOCs for decades — and it may not come from MOOCs themselves, but from the ripples they set off in higher education. But we’re learning from them every day.

Here are three widespread misconceptions about the role and promise of MOOCs:

1. MOOCs should be evaluated by the same standards we use to evaluate traditional classes

By those standards, the MOOC dropout rate is alarmingly high and the completion rate (as low as five to 10 percent) preposterously low. Based on those numbers, some critics have dismissed MOOCs as a flash-in-the-pan. But as others have noted, people sign up for MOOCs for all sorts of reasons ­­–– to learn something new, to interact with fellow learners from around the world, to find out what the buzz is about. With only an email address required to register, many people who sign up have no intention of, or interest in, completing the course. I’ve dropped out of half a dozen MOOCs myself — and I got exactly what I wanted out of them. In some cases I wanted to observe the pedagogical practices of other institutions and, in others, I was interested in the use of media and learning design. In Penn State University’s “Maps and the Geospatial Revolution” MOOC, 306 students registered (and paid) at the beginning of the course for a track that would allow them to have their work verified and earn certificates — and 306 students earned those certificates, for a completion rate of 100 percent. The focus on retention and attrition misses the most important point, which is the intentionality of the student.

2. A MOOC should generate revenue

There are many returns on investment (ROIs) for MOOCs, but they may not be monetary. At Penn State, MOOCs are attracting new students to our existing online programs. They’re creating online learning communities around the world and providing us with a wealth of data for future pedagogical research. I recently spoke with a doctoral student looking at MOOCs for her research in intercultural communication — how a student from China might look at a course compared to a student from South Africa, for example. Penn State faculty members are taking components of MOOCs ­­–– such as discussion forums and social media –– and using them in traditional classroom-based courses.  And MOOCs have prompted many faculty members to take a new look at the role of instructional design. Those are all ROIs.

3. MOOCs are a cure for all that ails higher education

There is, of course, the reverse perception: MOOCs spell doom for traditional colleges and universities.

Champions of MOOCs have jumped on them as the solution to rising tuitions and the needs of a changing student body less able to afford the cost or time commitment of a traditional four-year college education. Critics say MOOCs could put all but the most nimble institutions out of business. I believe neither is true. For Penn State, and I suspect many other universities, MOOCs are a pilot program, just one of many innovations we’re testing and hoping to learn from. We don’t know what the future will look like, but we need to be a part of it. Exploring the benefits and possibilities of MOOCs is just one way to do that.

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Readers Comments

Elena Cole 2014/09/02 at 12:46 pm

MOOCs are the first innovative thing to come out of this push for institutions to move online, so it makes sense that they’ve been unfairly expected to single-handedly carry the industry into the 21st century. Unfortunately, the MOOC backlash — which came surprisingly soon after its introduction — redirected the conversation to its flaws instead of its potential to transform higher ed. No, MOOCs won’t solve every crisis, but they’re great in that they force institutions to consider new ways of scaling education. They’ve opened up the conversation about higher ed affordability and accessibility. They’re an excellent source for data mining for higher ed researchers. The list goes on.

Brandon Emerson 2014/09/03 at 10:43 am

I, too, am interested in moving beyond the “sky is falling” mentality of MOOC naysayers. I think the focus now should be on developing criteria for evaluating MOOCs, as Weidermann makes the point that they shouldn’t be assessed the same way as traditional programming. Here’s where I will give in to the MOOC dissidents: until we agree on the objective of MOOCs and a standard way of assessing their outcomes, these courses will be “just a fad.” We do need to consider their value to students. I believe there are many benefits to MOOCs, but now we need to get those on paper — to prove the naysayers wrong.

Susan Farber 2014/09/09 at 8:36 am

Weidemann describes three empowering returns on investment that he observed in offering and examining the impact of MOOCs. It requires time to document, measure and describe observations as to the benefit of any disruptive or innovative practice – as well as to note its shortcomings.
These three ROIs demonstrate the ripple effect of innovative and disruptive practices penetrating higher education.
For innovation to become sustainable and embedded, educators need to accept the strengths and the shortcomings; failure or less desirable outcomes are part of the trial and error approach to learning.
Have we forgotten that much of science and early childhood learning depends on learning from error or challenges?

Another point, regarding the dropout rate in MOOCs – Are we
aware of the learners’ needs so we create a responsive design to avoid or reduce the dropout rate? Are these MOOCs intended to be completed by all who enroll by sharing an email address and a click? Or as Weidemann indicates, are all enrolled learners motivated (internally or externally) to complete the MOOC?

Learning – face-to-face OR online — is a two way path, learners and instructors have to work together to meet along the path, at various points. Along the path, learning could happen at various points and among different groups of the learners as they all explore the topic and practice the skills outlined in the course syllabus.

However we offer a course or where we create this pathway, engagement and effective communication can serve as the vehicle for learning and ROI – for both the instructor and the learners/students.

Daniel Szpiro 2016/03/21 at 2:01 pm

With respect to Dr. Weidemann,

1. If you charge for an online course (something that was going on long before anyone ever coins the acronym “MOOC) then it is not “open” so it is not a MOOC. I am not certain of the point you are trying to make by citing the completion rate for a paid course, albeit online, as 100%. Are you surprised? Is this significantly different than other paid on-ground or online courses at your institute or elsewhere? If we are going to agree on the basis upon which we will evaluate the impact or success of MOOCs it would be helpful to start with an agreed upon definition of what is, and what is not, a MOOC.

2. If you, and majority of other people who start MOOCs, dropped out before the completion of the course, isn’t one interpretation of this trend that MOOCs are poorly designed? If the large majority of people want shorter courses with “bite size” learning goals then why are MOOCs so long? Why are designers ignoring the implicit feedback of 90+% of people who start but do not complete MOOCs? The take-away is that MOOCs should look more like Khan Academy then a taped version of a semester-long course.

3. It is not clear that online education offers a solution for rising tuition costs. The cost of designing, hosting, and delivering MOOCs, plus the cost of supporting students enrolled in a MOOCs, do not offer a significantly lower operating cost for institutions of higher education. Where does the savings come from to pass along in the form of lower tuition?

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