Published on 2013/07/29

MOOCs: Facts and Myths

MOOCs: Facts and Myths
Before MOOCs can gain any more ground in the higher education space, it’s critical to understand what they can deliver on and what may simply be an empty promise.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have captured the attention of higher education worldwide. Major universities, including some which have previously held online learning at arm’s length, seek to participate in “MOOC mania.” Little critical analysis has preceded these decisions. Instead, the opportunity to build institutional brand and be seen in the company of such names as Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University has seemed to be the motivation.

As the “irrational exuberance” phase fades, a clearer picture emerges. Many early assumptions were wrong. Now we see what seems true (fact) and what has proven “not so” (myth):


1. For-profit providers of MOOCs do have sustainable business models.

Whether consulting to build or present programs or offering technology to aggregate eyeballs, a model that can attract hundreds of thousands of participants must be taken seriously. The venture capital community agrees and has just invested $43 million in Coursera, a MOOC provider founded by two Stanford professors.[1]

2. MOOCs are an attractive vehicle for delivering a range of services.

Whether it’s providing cutting-edge continuing education or assisting with brand building for institutions or faculty, MOOCs are seen as an efficient tool.

3. MOOCs have a role to play even for small and lesser-known institutions.

Experience shows MOOCs are effective as marketing tools as well as for some forms of instructional delivery. The Berklee College of Music, for instance, has offered a MOOC to acquaint interested individuals with its guitar program (with more than 100,000 enrollees). Participants receive one unit of credit for free. Those seeking to go further have the opportunity to do so, but at regular tuition rates. Even with the usual low levels of persistence and completion, Berklee expects several thousand enrollments in its fall program.

4. MOOC participants are largely drawn from outside the United States.

Analysis of participant profiles shows 70 percent of MOOC enrollees are from outside the United States.

5. MOOCs, with refinement, offer the prospect of access to higher education for the half of the world’s population under the age of 25.

In 2011, the global population stood at about 7 billion. According to Population Action International, 3.5 billion of those are under 25, with the greatest number from less developed nations. Only a tiny percentage of these will be able to access higher education as we know it. By removing cost and access barriers, something MOOCs can transcend, larger populations may benefit from this model of instructional delivery.


1. Earning college credit for MOOC participation is widely accepted.

While a few institutions have extended credit for MOOC completion, this is seen as more of a recruiting strategy than a validation of learning. In fact, no MOOC provider has administered psychometrically valid assessments of learning. The lack of attention to learning outcomes has led to institutional unwillingness to accept even those credit recommendations made by the American Council on Education (ACE). In addition, there appears to be much less demand for credit than was envisioned. One recent MOOC, with an enrollment of more than 100,000, had but seven participants actually take the homegrown end-of-course test. Additionally, it has been reported Colorado State University’s Global Campus, which offered to award credit after an assessment, has had no takers.

2. MOOCs feature the latest in instructional design.

In fact, the absence of instructional design is often cited as a reason for the huge attrition rate that has been observed. While varying by offering, faculty are presented much as they appear in a classroom, with no interactivity or visuals. This is thought to contribute to attrition rates of over 90 percent.

3. The MOOC is an American example of creativity and technical innovation.

Institutions in England and Ireland, and the University of Manitoba in Canada, all offered MOOCs prior to their emergence in the United States. While U.S. universities experimented with the technology, it wasn’t until the 2011 offerings of Stanford faculty that “MOOC mania” was launched here.

4. A MOOC offered by an academic institution can be expected to receive credit toward its degree requirements.

Many colleges and universities offer instruction that carries no academic credit and that can’t be used toward degree requirements. This is true not only for MOOCs but also for many forms of continuing education.

5. MOOCs are the answer to America’s call for a high-quality, inexpensive degree.

MOOC instruction may come from outstanding faculty with distinguished records, but this alone does not guarantee a positive learning experience. In fact, the degree to which the MOOC format engenders actual learning remains unproven. This is a significant shortcoming at a time when accreditors are demanding evidence of satisfactory learning outcomes. For younger students, the lack of faculty interaction and the forced dependence on peers for interaction and clarification are significant concerns.


The MOOC has great potential, but the creation of quality learning outcomes must be shown. Only with further experimentation will we see whether MOOCs can be as effective in creating learning as they are in creating media attention.

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[1] Melissa Korn, “Online Education Startup Coursera Raises $43 Million,” The Wall Street Journal, July 10, 2013. Accessed at

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Readers Comments

Henry Smalling 2013/07/29 at 6:10 am

Our use of MOOCs have, so far, been fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants efforts. Now that the dust is finally settling on this new education delivery format, we have a clearer picture of its potential, but also its limitations. It’s helpful that these are laid out — and Ebersole’s observations are spot on.

The next question, of course, is how to address the “myths” he raises. I wouldn’t go so far as calling them empty promises, as I believe these are challenges institutions can work through. But they will require a new way of doing things and, perhaps, a more systematic approach to implementing them.

Oliver Wayne 2013/07/29 at 1:21 pm

One of the neat things about MOOCs is their ability to reach a global audience. But this is a double-edged sword, as the MOOC’s reach could also be its greatest challenge. Ebersole correctly points out many MOOC students are from outside of the United States, perhaps from countries where there is little access to higher education. At the same time, he suggests that the next step is for institutions to engage an American audience. I’m having difficulty imagining how a single course could offer a high-quality experience for both the first and second types of students identified above.

Patricia Lawerence 2013/07/30 at 9:05 am

The next step is, as Ebersole suggests, establishing clear learning outcomes and also a method of tracking them. More research is needed into why the non-completion rate for MOOCs is so high (“completion” is used in its traditional sense, where the student completes all of the evaluations and receives a grade at the end). It seems, according to this definition of completion, that many MOOC takers “drop out.” But perhaps they’re not really disengaging from the course. Perhaps they’re reviewing content and simply choosing not to participate in evaluation, for whatever reason. We need to learn why.

We need to learn if they are leaving the course with new knowledge, insights or skills. Answers to these questions will move us forward.

    James R (Randy) Fromm 2013/07/31 at 10:12 am

    Patricia, I was one of those MOOC participants who started out (this last March) with the intent to participate fully and who then, ultimately, faded from the scene. I passed through all of the phases: active participant taking assessments, active lurker viewing the videos lectures and reading the material, in-active lurker checking in now and again, and, finally, fully disengaged. The course and its structure had nothing to do with my ultimate disengagement but, rather, came about as a consequence of the ‘exigencies of life.’ Work and preparation for a return to being a full time student at a brick-and-mortar facility took precedence.

    I am sure that, for many of the ‘dropouts,’ this is not an unusual story. But I also believe that it takes a particular kind of student to ‘hang in there’ through the tenuous connections afforded by the online experience. It is something that is not for everyone; I know because I teach in the online environment.

    I do feel that I left the course with some new ‘knowledge,’ even if that knowledge took form only of a renewed interest in the subject matter and the desire to pursue it further. In my experience, the course with which I chose to ‘test the waters’ of the MOOC model was as intent on developing skills at reading particular kinds of texts as it was on providing insights to those texts; the assessments which I did complete tested both, albeit in a very literal, multiple-choice way.

    I do not think MOOCs will replace traditional, stand-and-deliver, brick-and-mortar style education any more than accredited online colleges have replaced it. I do think they will appeal to curious students who are self-motivated and self-determining and who require little, if any, goading to complete assignments or courses. The other population to which they will clearly appeal are those of us who have already completed one or more courses of study in particular disciplines who now want to immerse themselves in a completely different field.

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