MOOCs: where are they going?

MOOCs are hyped up by their fans as a new learning paradigm which will bring quality higher education to a student body hitherto excluded from participation. Their critics question whether tens (or possibly hundreds) of thousands of students on one course can possibly be receiving an effective learning experience. As MOOCs have only been around since 2008 and have suddenly exploded in the past year, there is not much evidence to help us adjudicate between these positions. The Journal of Online Learning and Teaching is taking steps to remedy this deficiency with a special edition devoted to MOOCs due to be published in June 2013. While we are waiting for that, I have been musing about the two questions which need to be answered about MOOCs:

1                     Is there a viable and sustainable business model?

2                     Do they have academic and educational merit?

In this post, I’m looking at the second question and throwing out a few challenges for consideration. If MOOCs really do have a new pedagogy which can work on a mass scale, it raises some fundamental existential questions about universities. Why would students need or choose a conventional university running face-to-face courses or even traditional distance or on-line learning, if they can get an equivalent free via a MOOC?

So, what does a non-MOOC offer, that (on the face of it at least) a MOOC cannot offer? Let’s examine some of the differences and what critics and fans might say about them. I’m not offering conclusions here – just trying to draw together some of the areas which need examination and evidence.

What do traditional courses have which MOOCs may lack?

Critics say:

Fans say:

Personal attention from a tutor.

As one of several thousand on a course, you can’t expect the lecturer to take a personal interest in your progress, give you advice about options, listen to your own ideas and give you personal encouragement and feedback.

 A good MOOC teacher (who may prefer to call him- or herself a facilitator) will encourage students to form their own study groups and promote peer-to-peer communication. So students get this input in other ways.


Active learning

Watching or listening to an on-line seminar along with thousands of others is like the worst kind of old-fashioned, packed lecture hall experience.


A well-designed MOOC (just like any on-line course) will build in opportunities for students to carry out activities to encourage a deep approach to learning.

Moderated exams and assessments

Academic standards cannot be maintained without individual faculty oversight of exams and assessments. Plagiarism and inconsistency will be rife. Machines can only test a narrow range of superficial technical knowledge and thus promote surface approaches to learning.

Peer-to-peer assessments are an effective substitute for faculty-marked exams. Combined with machine-marked tests, it is possible to have a rigorous assessment regime.


Plagiarism is a problem for all assessment regimes.

Additional study skill support

When students enter higher education, many of them need a great deal of support in order to learn how to study. MOOCs are only really appropriate for self-starters who already have these skills and a very high level of motivation.

Hmm – I’m not sure what the riposte to this one is. Perhaps some readers could help me out.


The vast majority of MOOCs do not attract credits and cannot plausibly do so because of the assessment issue (above)


The earliest MOOCs at Athabasca University and University of Manitoba were for credit (thanks to Geoff Cain for pointing out this omission in my earlier blog on this subject) and the American Council on Education is currently considering this issue. It’s only a matter of time.

A coherent programme of study

A HE programme is not just a series of short courses strung together by an individual student. The whole programme has its own learning outcomes and a carefully selected combination of compulsory and elective elements. It is more than the sum of its parts.

Does it have to be? Perhaps we can develop new types of degree where the student plays a greater role in creating his/her own programme.



All other aspects of university life

Conventional universities offer so much more than classroom learning. Students also develop as individuals via clubs and societies, social opportunities, interaction with their peers and faculty.

That’s true, but it’s expensive and not appropriate for all students. Many students participate in university courses without taking up these opportunities. Many don’t have time because they also need paid work. Some don’t find them useful because they have their own established networks (e.g. mature students and students from certain ethnic groups)


Many HE students (perhaps most) choose their course and institution based on reputation and not on what they will learn or how well it is taught. It’s more about a brand on a c.v. Employers would not accept a “MOOC degree”.

That’s a very cynical point of view! MOOCs enable students to access courses from the very best universities so there is no reason why they should lack prestige. It’s only a matter of time.


Of course, it is not likely that students will desert conventional university education in favour of MOOCs in the short-term. A model will develop of MOOCs existing alongside other modes of study. What that model looks like will depend on the answers to some of the questions posed in the table and on the first of my two questions at the top of this blog: is there a sustainable business model and, if so, what is it?


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