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5 Reasons Why MOOCs Provide Little Real Value

moocs-freeLately there have been a lot of articles and opinions circulating the internet on why massive-open-online-courses (or MOOCs) are the next greatest thing, but I’m not entirely convinced that is the case (not yet anyhow). Let me just say that I think MOOCs are pretty exciting – but I am wondering if we are getting carried away too soon.

The commentary around MOOCs is understandably hopeful, and it should be. Elearning breaks down the barriers of education like never before, and the tools to create elearning are becoming more robust every day. However, allow me to play “devil’s advocate” for a moment and provide an alternative perspective on MOOCs. Consider the following:

1. Free isn’t always a good thing

Everyone loves getting free stuff, but how often has something that is free turned out to be better than a purchased product? Unfortunately, not very often. There could be a variety of reasons for this depending on the context, but my point of view on this matter is that often times free removes a degree of accountability. What’s the most common reaction when someone is complaining about getting something for free? “What are you complaining for, you didn’t even need to pay anything!” It’s as if because something is free then it means you can’t voice concern, or displeasure. If a course you are taking from a MOOC stinks, then don’t expect customer service to diligently follow-up on your feedback.

2. No one really “gets it” yet

I am pretty pumped about the revolutionary aspect of MOOCs. The ability for elearning to take place on a scale so large it is almost incomprehensible. But at the same time, I can’t help but get the impression that everyone is just signing up to see what it is all about… wandering aimlessly through a spattering of random courses. Professors are probably more confused, likely thinking: “Oh, I’ll just put up a video from my lecture in 2004 – sure the textbook we were discussing is about 18 versions old, but it’s good stuff…and hey, it’s FREE!” … before you know it, the poor teacher’s assistant is trying to answer 12,000 forum posts from confused participants trying to fully understand the dated content.

3. Grades and/or feedback carry little to no weight

Fairly or not, education has predominately been guided on the notion of obtaining a good grade (and avoiding bad ones) – and you know, perhaps this is a paradigm shift that MOOCs are trying to create. But for the most part, when grades don’t matter, people don’t care. Okay, they care, but probably not as much as they would in a formal institution. There are some exceptions to this rule, I get that. I think if you have a passion for the topic, then you probably would take on that five page writing assignment. But would you cancel your plans to get it done? If your peers are reviewing your work and they slam you for it being all wrong – do you think you would try to understand “why”, or would you become defensive? At least in formal institutions, there is an incentive to understand your mistakes on poor grades and feedback. MOOCs lack this, so when does the real learning take place?

4. Badges will never replace diplomas

There has been lots of buzz around the Mozilla Open Badges initiative these days. I have mixed emotions here. If you are unfamiliar, the open-badges initiative is an attempt to recognize skills and achievements through the awarding of digital badges. There has been talk about implementing this type of award system in the MOOC world. One could say that a diploma doesn’t really provide any real value, nor verification that a topic has actually been learned – and they may be right (I’ve known some people who have degrees that I wouldn’t let watch my cat) :) But, I can’t imagine a scenario where corporate HR departments actively seek out digital badge qualifications over diploma disciplines.

5. Support infrastructure isn’t mature enough

When I say support infrastructure, I am referring to the learning management system (or systems) in place, and administrative support personnel. I took a moment to investigate some of the larger MOOCs available today, and most follow the same pattern. There is a description page, and perhaps an overview video from the instructor. From there, it’s off to the forums. Here is something I found interesting: I clicked on the introduction video link and waited for the video to load. My connection was a little spotty, so I closed the window. Even though I didn’t watch all but one second of the video, the line item was “checked off” as complete. Surely there is a more accurate way to track user progress, right?

I feel bad for the administrative personnel behind MOOCs. It literally is a monumental task to support hundreds of thousands (millions?) of people asking the same questions. The teams behind MOOCs simply aren’t large enough, and they probably can’t realistically become big enough either. The end result is that some people will inevitably become angry and frustrated – and they’ll likely blame the user experience.

Again, MOOCs are pretty cool. I think once they mature a bit they will carve out their identity, and hopefully iron out the kinks. I look forward to seeing this evolution, and seeing how learning professionals all over the world take advantage of the momentum they have started with online learning.

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About the Author:

Justin Ferriman is the Founder of LearnDash, a WordPress based LMS and Learning Strategy provider. He also works as a Learning & Collaboration Consultant where he implements large-scale training programs for Fortune 500 companies.

15 Comments
  1. Amaru Mandal

    Good article Justin, but not sure I agree totally.
    “Free” is very much in and necessarily means Freedom in the current context; take for example the transition to Open Source softwares, LMSs, Auhoring Tools, etc., a move away from proprietory stuff and punitive prices they command. People are realizing the power of open communities and are contributing whole-heartedly to build and further improve open-source tools. A case in point is the HTML5 revolution.
    My 2 cents on this is probably where there is a need, life will find its way.
    MOOCs are here to stay as soon the world will realize the necessity and truly appreciate its significance in making great quality education available for everyone. It’s currently in its nascency or formative years and will take sometime to iron out the kinks, but it will happen.
    Best part about MOOCs are the endless possbilities they provide for collaboration and shared learning. That they are “Free” are an added advantage. As soon as clear instructions/guidance are provided on how best to collaborate and work on assignments, participate in discussions, etc. and the tools provided are easy and intuitive to use, more and more people will actively participate and will surely develop a more deeper understanding of the concepts they have learned.
    Current Challenges:
    Most learners register for a MOOC as they have felt the need to learn that subject and will therefore be intrinsically motivated to learn. Learning is more “Pull-based” rather than “Push-based”. However, MOOCs need to be planned properly for them to work. Not only is the quality of content or teaching really important but learning adminitration plays an equally important role and is largely responsible for the ultimate success or failure of MOOCs. Not only do the content need to be taught in an engaging manner allowing scope for interaction and active learner participation, but what is equally important is the learners can successfully meet online as groups and close out the assignments with minimum administrative or technical fuss.
    Also, “Peer Assessment” if planned properly, should be taken with all seriousness as all learners themselves are being assessed at the same time by others. Also, the practice of assessing each assignment by a group of peers (min. 5) removes any chances of bias as the final score for the assignment is awarded based on the mean score achieved based on the 5 assessors.
    Additionally, the itinerary for these courses need to be realistic and goals achievable for learners; one needs to remember that most learners are taking these courses in their free available time after work/normal duties and therefore the timelines should not be too taxing or otherwise will result in loss of motivation and rapid attrition.
    Also, to keep up the motivation, one has to include gamification elements like real-time Leader Board updates, Reward Badges, etc. post assignments; these reward elements will keept the spirit of competition going right through the course and will act as motivation boosters for the learners. The teachers can also play a part by a quick mention of learners who are really doing well or may be someone who raised a great question or rounded-off a great discussion. Such motivation fillers work wonders when distance and lack of eye-contact or feedback raises a question mark every now and then and helps create a sense of belonging and ownership to the MOOC.

    All said and done, I see MOOCs as evolutionary, a progressive change which is inevitable. How long it takes for it to turn into a global learning standard is for us wait and watch. Hopefully it will catch on in another couple of years.

  2. What I appreciate about MOOCs is its emphasis on self-motivation. One can choose to do all the assignments and actually spend time applying the lessons and building an online portfolio. Maybe this is an opportunity to see who actually is motivated to learn beyond the grade?

  3. Well done .

    I was the biggest advocate of MOOCws at the beginning .

    They were announced by MIT and Harvard as at a small fee, not free.

    But then Coursera and Udacity are trying to monetise the idea .

    That means they lose the trust of people .

    COLLEGE EDUCATION IS EXPENSİVE PARENTS CANNOT AFFORD IT
    MOST COLLEGES DO NOT JHAVE A GOOD QUALITY GRADUATES EVEN CANNOT FIND A JOB .

    MIT and Harvard was a perfect solution . They are non profit .

    But they started to follow the regular MOOCs too . Fee for exams by Pearson at $ 99 € + VAT . Also they do not say an thing regarding degrees .

    The value of MOOCs without a degree is ZERO . That is the reason finishing students are around 200-300 per course .

    MOOCs are good for adults to improve their knowledge only . Therefore look up the quality of MOOCs courses they are not the same as oncampus courses . They are second class courses for free looking people . It is just a big fanfar in the world . Wake up wake up do not waste your time .

    I hope people will understand what the MOOCs are soon and give up to talk about it .

    I suggest edx to start providing degrees asap if they want to be desired by people of the world . Just MITx and Harvard x degrees are good enough . Plus charge at least $ 100 from the start to avoide unneceassary customers .

    Why people cannot be smart enough to understand what is going on around themselves . Any comment .

  4. I am not that familiar with MOOCs and all the different organizations offering them so I am speaking from a bit of a laymen’s perspective. That being said, it seems to me that it is a matter of expectations and intentions. Students expecting to get a college education from free courses online are unlikely to be satisfied with the end result. Students looking to increase their level of knowledge in a certain field with no specific expectation on how much knowledge they will gain would find these courses very helpful I would think. If you intend to be a pilot you will not be able to gain that knowledge and get a job by using MOOC courses. If you intend to learn more about gardening so you can grow your own food or more about stocks so you can invest your own money then MOOCs would be great. These are just examples, but I think you get the point.

  5. Hello, Justin
    I am in the process of taking several MOOCs right now. I can’t say that I disagree with you entirely about many of the statements that you made. Each MOOC is different. Most of the participants are highly educated, extremely busy and are not looking to replace a traditional classroom setting. Many already have either a master’s or doctorate degree. A good share of my classmates teaching in higher education. All were beyond busy, but very excited about the prospect of learning in a different format.
    I am curious, though, about the MOOCs that you have taken. I looked to find the names of the courses that you have taken, but haven’t found them.

  6. Laureen Greenwood

    I am a remote Instructional designer building online classes that are being built as open content courses for a state college system and I am a former K-12 and adult educator at a community college. I see the possibilities that MOOC’s offer is free education. That is it’s main value. MOOC’s are part of the revolution in education. It’s about CHANGING how we view “education”, where education takes place, AND how to assess or certify learning.

    Technology has opened a new frontier and we are only at the beginning of possibilities and changes. One of those changes, will need to look at the certification of learning in all areas of education not just MOOC’s. Currently in the college/ secondary school systems we have built a certification of attendance system instead of a certification of learning system. Case in point language credits.
    Currently a bilingual student may take advanced courses or another language but they are not allowed to test out for language credits. A student transferring to the public school was denied credit for two semesters of math, which she completed in one semester at a private school, because her body wasn’t in a seat for two semesters. The focus is not on the student demonstrating knowledge or application of a second language or math; the emphasis is on the student’s body being in the seat for two years and passing the test.
    In college it’s becoming harder to justify the expense of sitting at the feet of a grad student.

    To those of us who have had the opportunity to go to college; we may be disappointed in what the MOOC’s offer but to others who do not have the opportunity and can use the information to build their knowledge base; it’s opened a whole new world. I know of several groups of people (non college grads) who self organize in enrolling and discussing the course that they are in. That is where I have found the course content is truly being used to “learn”; through the information given and being discussed.
    The rest of the “values”in question are by people trying to either make it fit into their current systems or to make a profit off it. We are going to have to see how all that shakes out. MOOC’s are a blessing to many people who are longing for educational opportunities and now they can have the same opportunity as we have had.

  7. I’ve been enjoying your blog for a while and usually (silently) agree with you, but this time I have to comment – MOOCs taught me to. I agree in part that MOOCs may need to mature, but this is a great time to take advantage of an educational experiment by some top universities who are trying to color outside the lines. I think it’s exciting, and I wanted to comment on each of your points;

    1. Free isn’t always a good thing – I’ve participated in two MOOCs and both had an enrollment of about 40K. Coursera received some complaints about one of them (about the chaos, I think), and they suspended it, so there is definitely customer service following up on feedback. Oddly, many of us in the course that was cancelled did not have a problem with it and are hoping it will be offered again.

    2. No one really “gets it” yet – People may be “signing up to see what it is all about” but the MOOCs I’ve participated in have presented good content. Not every MOOC will be good, but not every e-learning or instructor-led course is good either. I signed up to try and learn what a MOOC was, whether it was possible to learn in one, how to design it and what type of support is needed, what the pitfalls and benefits are, and I’m amazed at what I’ve learned. In fact, my brain is still chewing and trying to swallow the big bites.

    3. Grades and/or feedback carry little to no weight – Let’s face it, getting a good grade doesn’t necessarily mean you learned anything. If we bring the incentive and self-discipline to learn to a situation (formal or informal) then we usually do, even if what we learn isn’t what was originally planned. I usually learn what my mind is open to, regardless of planned content.

    4. Badges will never replace diplomas – maybe not; maybe diplomas will eventually be given for a curriculum that includes MOOCs, but HR departments often accept experience in place of education, and if real learning takes place then a person might learn via MOOCs and then get a job. It might not work for every profession, but those general courses required at the start of every university degree could certainly be completed via MOOCs in place of the ubiquitous amphitheater full of freshmen we have today.

    5. Support infrastructure isn’t mature enough – there is a certain amount of expected chaos in a MOOC, but why can’t chaos be leveraged for learning? What is the internet after all, but loosely structured chaos? Incorporating peer assessment can compensate for some of the volume of feedback needed by students, so I think that’s practically a requirement for a MOOC. Ultimately though, if people can learn informally by seeking out information on the internet and finding someone to discuss it with, why not learn via a MOOC?

  8. I just found your site. Love it! These are the types of discussions I’m looking to have as a PhD candidate.

    At BYU, I have some friends who are studying MOOCs and how to make them more effective. From what I hear, they are not trying to replace diplomas. The way they talk about it, in 15 years, they imagine diplomas will be a thing of the past. Employers aren’t going to care about degrees from a gradually dilapidating education system. They want to know what potential employees can DO. It’s a completely different way of looking at assessment and qualifications.

  9. Justin, I totally agree with your comments on the potential of MOOCs but also their current drawbacks. Before I read the piece I noted my own 5 drawbacks and they were pretty similar. Like other people commenting above I’m and experienced deliverer/author of courses in face-to-face, distance and online situations and I’ve also studied on these scenarios too. I’m currently (supposedly) a student of a very respectable MOOC delivered by OLDS (Open University and JISC) about designing courses, esp MOOCs. This has been both daunting and exciting.
    Your point about support systems is very valid: finding ones way around a MOOC at the start is challenging and enough to drive an anxious student away. Glad to see a new course being developed as part of the coursework starts with tips for entering a MOOC.
    Secondly, cherry-picking is the way to cope with a MOOC, esp if you have constraints like full time work, kids, other study too. But in all other situations selecting just the bits you want to do does not equate to meaningful learning. F-2-F students will try to do this too but processes like assessment flag this up.
    One of my biggest problems with MOOCs is (formative) assessment as a way of testing what has been learned. My MOOC pretty much left me to judge my own performance – reflection was encouraged and I did get tutor feedback too. But what if I was missing vital info or not “getting” theory? Yes, I encourage my students to engage in peer assesment quite a lot but I’d never do that without mine and the tutor teams assesment.
    I’ve pretty much dropped out of my MOOC because i’ve been ill for three weeks. I was a diligent student, always posting work on time. But no-one has noticed I’ve gone….
    I’ve also had to fill out a skills pro forma for my work recently but when I entered my MOOC I knew no-one seeing it would know what I was talking about and yes I’ve had colleagues laugh in my face for getting a virtual badge. Even my 11yr old son thought it was pathetic!
    So, potential yes of course but current logitical value….still undecided.

  10. Kim Feldmesser

    Hi Justin,
    My colleagues have been discussing the relative merits of MOOCs and I felt I had to add some of the comments to your blog. It appears that some colleges are now deciding MOOCs are ‘the way to go’ because they promote that college and the courses it is running and can be used as another form of advertising. MOOCs could be used as a form of ‘loss-leader’ by institutions to encourage prospective students to enrol on ‘real’ courses once they’ve had a taster. If the taster is good and the student feels they have gained from the course, they may well decide to sign up for a course with fees attached. I know that’s not the original intention of MOOC design, but our discussions seem to indicate the above may be a very attractive proposition to education management. The problem of course is getting faculty to release (their own) material to the MOOC, but here is the rub. Faculty may have spent many years putting a good course together and because of their contractual obligations to the institution, the material is not ‘theirs’ but is solely owned by the institution. Courses that were dropped from prospecti can now be resurrected and used. Please excuse my cynicism, and ignorance, as I have not yet enrolled on a MOOC and so I cannot comment on content and quality. However, why would institutions offer free courses when they are struggling to get courses filled with a fee attached? It makes no sense, unless it is just a marketing strategy. And what’s with the ‘virtual badge’? I’ve got an app that does that for my 10 year old daughter when she accomplishes a level in a game! The qualifications awarded for these free courses need a more robust measure of competence. Maybe by allowing MOOC students to take the same exam as their fee-paying counterparts, institutions could get statistical analysis to evaluate the effectiveness of both courses as well as giving the MOOC examinee a respected qualification in the real world if they pass. I won’t mention the ramifications of MOOC students succeeding where fee-paying students are failing, as that’s another can of worms!

  11. Ken

    Great article, Justin!

    I’d like to comment (meaning this is from my humble opinions) as follows:

    “Free isn’t always a good thing.” The Internet is filled with information, so why do people still need to attend schools to get diplomas? As an educator, I see more pupils led astray by faulty information because they cannot discern the sources’ credibility.

    No “accountability” because the course is offered for free and that means “dated contents” is possible as there is no quality control. Would you want to learn “outdated” procedures or procedures currently in use for a reasonable fee, which once mastered, can land you a paying job? I am willing pay a fee for some kind of corrective feedback on my performance, otherwise, I can just as easily read books free of charge from public libraries on ‘how to fly an airplane’ or ‘do brain surgery.’ Lastly, if I cannot have people in an HR department recognize my ‘knowledge’ to increase my wage or worth (deemed by employers), MOOC does little to me except give me knowledge in a rather confusing environment. Readings books from the libraries is more straight forward (for me).

  12. Lisa

    I think MOOCs need to offer mini courses. I don’t have the time to devote to a whole college course, but I would like to know more about various topics. I don’t plan on formally furthering my education, but would be nice to take a lighter version of what they’re offering. That’s why I end up dropping out of the courses – I fall behind.

    I create online courses at my company as my job, and I know their limitations. I think restricting the content more is a viable solution.

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