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Why MOOCs?

By Steven D. Krause

Very few people had heard of massive open online courses when the term “MOOC” was coined in 2008 by Canadian educational activist Dave Cormier. That first MOOC,  “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge,” taught by fellow Canadians George Siemens and Stephen Downes, consisted of a face-to-face course of 25 traditional students joined by more than 2,000 students who participated online. More MOOC experiments followed. The New York Times proclaimed 2012 as the “year of the MOOCs” after the education technology startups Coursera, Udacity and edX garnered national attention with millions in venture capital and partnerships with many of the most prestigious universities in the world.

In other words, in less than five years, MOOCs have gone from being an obscure experiment in open education and online pedagogy to a radical reimagining of higher education. Depending on your perspective, MOOCs will extend the opportunity of a college degree to millions of otherwise disenfranchised people, or it will destroy all that is valuable, good and noble about the traditional university.

Regardless of how one feels about the promises or perils of MOOCs, it’s hard not to be in awe of their meteoric rise in higher education. As Cathy Davidson of Duke University pointed out in “If MOOCs Are the Answer, What Is the Question?”, the debate about MOOCs has shifted the conversation in the popular media from “Is college worth it?” to “How can we make college affordable to everyone?”

I’ve been personally immersed in the MOOC phenomenon for about 18 months now, having dived into several as a student, as a scholar and currently as a co-editor. These experiences have made me think a lot about my own approaches to online learning and teaching. What I’ve been asking myself lately about what MOOCs might mean to teachers and students boils down to five somewhat (but not entirely) rhetorical questions:

1. Why ‘massive’? 

The massiveness of MOOCs has attracted most of the headlines, especially in the mainstream media—50,000 students in this class, 100,000 students in that class. It has tantalized administrators interested in both raising enrollments and expanding institutional “brand name” recognition, and has reeled in some of the “star” faculty who have developed and taught the courses. Never mind that 90 percent of these students drop out of the class or weren’t students in the first place, which I’ll get to with question 2. To date, all of the synchronous MOOCs I’ve seen put all 10,000 or 20,000 or 50,000 students into one space. That large grouping might be interesting if the MOOC star gave a live lecture or performance, sort of like seeing your favorite band perform in an enormous concert. But there is no significant “live” event in MOOCs, since the lectures and other materials are typically prerecorded and there is often no evidence that the professor is ever actually present in the class at all.

Making matters worse, because of this massiveness, the student discussion forums in MOOCs are useless. Instead of being a space that mimics the “small group” discussion in face-to-face classes—an opportunity where students can get to know each other, exchange questions and concerns, and speak with the professor or a teaching assistant—the discussion forums are largely white noise that are more analogous to YouTube or Huffington Post comment forums. It’s like drinking in a conversation that’s spraying out of a fire hose. What’s the point of making MOOCs one big group?

MOOC providers could learn from the way we teach first-year writing at large universities. My university is typical: Eastern Michigan University has about 23,000 students, and all undergraduates are required to take “freshman comp,” with between 1,500 and 2,000 students enrolled in the course in any given semester. First-year writing is massive, but we don’t have all 2,000 or so students taking the class in one big lecture hall or online space. Rather, we divide students into 80 to 90 sections of 25, and we give them a similar experience in each class by having common textbooks, assignments and approaches to teaching. We do it this way because teaching writing is a labor-intensive and qualitative process. It is certainly a different endeavor than teaching other subjects where we’re comfortable in lecture hall formats.

It seems to me that these mega-MOOCs could just as easily divide students into smaller groups that all see identical versions of the class. With students divided up into manageable sections, I think the discussion and interaction among students within those groups could actually become a more supportive space. 

2. Why ‘open’?

One of the most obvious reasons for the high dropout rate in MOOCs is that many people who sign up don’t have any intention of actually participating in the MOOC; rather, they are people who are curious about all the fuss, they check it out, and then they never return. 

But those who start with good intentions may still drop out because there are no costs or consequences for quitting. One way to change that is to raise the cost of participation, which in turn raises the cost of giving up. Look, for example, at Coursera’s experience with Signature Track, a program it rolled out to serve as an authentication system to assign credit to the individual student. In the first Signature Track class, Coursera found the completion rate among paying students was 74 percent, compared with 9 percent in the nonpaying population.

Of course, not being free means limiting access, and that obviously has drawbacks. But failure isn’t free for the MOOC providers, both in terms of actual costs of providing MOOCs and in terms of the validity of the concept.

3. Why the focus on ‘gen ed’? 

All the MOOC courses I have seen are trying to be like introductory classes common in most universities’ general education curriculum, or they are “edutainment” courses not analogous to any traditional college course for credit. Oddly, all the data suggests that most MOOC students are college-educated professionals who are interested in the particular topic and are not taking the MOOC because they want to see what college is like or to get transferable college credit. Coursera has acknowledged this audience problem with its move to partner with some flagship public universities and by pushing to get into the learning-management system business so it can take on companies like Blackboard.

While Coursera may have noble intentions, it’s also true that there is more profit in general education classes, since so many more students need to take courses like freshman comp rather than graduate seminars about Sigmund Freud. But there is also a real untapped population of would-be graduate students—professionals who want to continue to learn and participate in an intellectually challenging discussion but want nothing to do with formal graduate school training. Advanced undergraduate and graduate students are more self-motivated and self-disciplined than first-year students. Since online success correlates to student self-motivation and self-discipline, why not offer that Freud MOOC?

4. Why ‘courses’?  

Let’s think outside the box for a minute and ask: What would a MOOC be if it weren’t a course? I have two guesses. First, perhaps MOOCs will replace textbooks. After all, both MOOCs and textbooks, as we know them now, are about delivering content from experts on a topic that scales well and is adaptable for individual teachers and students. And MOOCs, of course, have more potential for interactivity than standard print textbooks, since they easily can provide multimedia content and can be updated instantly.

Second, perhaps MOOCs are more of a resource around a particular topic or ongoing training. For example, in terms of the teaching of writing, imagine something that might be a cross between a site like the Purdue Online Writing Lab, which provides invaluable writing advice and stylistic information to anyone for free, and a fan fiction writing site, where lots of fan writers share stories that are read, reviewed and revised by other fans. It might still be possible for people to take some kind of test, for life experience credit or AP-like credit, associated with this sort of not-course-bound MOOC, but the main point would be more of an ongoing learning community. In my mind, this would return MOOCs to those early experimental days when they were less about granting transferable college credit and more about giving interested people an educational and community experience.

5. Will MOOCs replace higher education as we know it? 

That is extremely unlikely. We’ve seen “transformative” educational technologies before that promised fundamental change—correspondence schools, courses on television, and what I can only describe as “traditional” online classes. So if history is a guide, the most likely future of MOOCs is that they will make all of us—teachers, administrators and students—think again about our goals in higher education. That is until the next big thing comes along.


Steven D. Krause is a professor of English language and literature at Eastern Michigan University and a member of the EMU Federation of Teachers. He is co-editing, with Charles Lowe, a collection of essays on MOOCs due out in 2014. 

Reprinted from the Winter 2013-14 issue of On Campus.