Lately 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.