Eduvation Blog

Are MOOCs everything they’re cracked up to be?

Certainly in the past year, MOOCs have become mainstream buzz as Coursera, Udacity, EdX and dozens of other platforms have launched, grown, and earned plenty of media attention.  This is one of the more popular questions I get asked — since MOOCs represent a major paradigm shift, and appear like they could be poised to replace lectures and even classes.

My usual reply is that MOOCs are just one of several fascinating new technological platforms that could definitely improve upon, or even replace, standard large lecture halls.  Every study I’ve seen suggests that online, pre-recorded lectures are more effective at conveying content to listeners than traditional live lectures.  But as a replacement for an entire course, the jury is still out on MOOCs.

Many students in large lecture classes have minimal interaction with their professor anyway.  Office hours are not always full utilized.  Tutorial or lab leaders are many undergrads’ main educational contact.  But plenty of studies emphasize the importance of active learning, in small group settings, and MOOCs don’t handle this equally well.  Furthermore, to scale a class up to 140,000 students or more, students need to depend on algorithms or each other for interaction, answers to questions, and grading of papers and exams.  This is the most controversial part of MOOCs, and why so far the most successful attempts have been in computer science and mathematics, subjects in which computers are well qualified to evaluate student learning.

MOOCs are definitely not the best pedagogical method for all students.  Many students require more personal connection with fellow students, or with an instructor.  Some subjects, humanities in particular, demand a more interactive approach.  Perhaps the technology will eventually get there, years from now, but in the meantime the most promising aspect of the MOOC approach is disrupting the traditional lecture model, which has long been broken, and opening up the potential for more active learning during classroom hours.  That, and like open courseware or podcast lectures, MOOCs offer millions of casual students the opportunity to experiment and taste subjects they might never otherwise try.

How about those of you who have taught MOOCs, or studied in MOOCs?  What do you think about their effectiveness?  Have they been overhyped?

One Comment

  1. September 13, 2013 at 11:27 am

    As of September 2013, Coursera announced that they had generated $1 million in paid certificates for 25,000 students. Those critics who claim the MOOC model is unsustainable, or that there is no revenue model, are just not paying attention…

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