What MOOCs Can and Cannot Do

The intense debate about the role of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in higher education continues. Proponents and administrators tout the potential of MOOCs to transform universities, while skeptics question the benefits of these online courses and critics highlight the threats they pose to student-faculty interaction, curricular design, and faculty autonomy.

A new article in the Chronicle of Higher Education surveys reactions to MOOCs by students who have taken a number of the online courses. Although the article presents the students’ comments in terms of feedback for professors who are teaching online courses, the students’ reactions are very revealing about the real uses of MOOCs.

One of the most powerful potential of MOOCs is to reach international students who want to do introductory studies in English language. The Chronicle article cites the example of “Markus Lauer, a 32-year-old Ph.D. student at Saarland University, in Germany, who has completed more than 28 MOOCs through Coursera.”

But, this same student indicates the basic nature of the MOOC information. According to the Chronicle, “the online courses have been a great way for him to get a quick introduction to new fields in a way books usually can’t provide. But to really learn any of those subjects in depth, he says, he’d have to hit the books in a more traditional way.” MOOC students seem to believe that the courses only offer basic introductory material.

MOOCs may be able to replace formal classroom lectures. MOOC users stressed the importance of professors’ “passion” for their subject as being key to their success as MOOC instructors. I would argue that this is identical to on-campus teaching. 

Formal classroom lectures have already been abandoned except in the largest 100-level lecture courses at many universities, however. Most history and humanities professors I know stress discussion over lecture, or at least blended lecture/discussions. So, perhaps MOOCs have the potential to replace 100-level introductory survey courses, but they will have to compete simultaneously with AP courses and community college survey offerings which are already replacing 100-level offerings at many universities.

MOOCs clearly do not replace books. The Chronicle article reports that “When the only materials are lecture videos, it can be hard to go back and study for quizzes or exams, several of the students say. Since the videos aren’t searchable in most MOOCs, students aren’t sure where in the video to look for a given concept they are reviewing.” One of the students questioned commented that: “I would really love that every course have some comparative set of reading materials.”

Unfortunately, some students follow MOOCs because they seem unable or unwilling to crack the cover of a book. The Chronicle reports: “Consider Anna Nachesa, a 42-year-old single mother in a village near Amsterdam who logs on to MOOCs for several hours each night after dinner with her teenage kids. She has always found TV boring, she says, and for her, MOOCs replace reading books. She is a physicist by training, with a degree from Moscow State University, and she works as a software developer.” MOOCs here serve as an alternative to TV, simply providing intellectual evening entertainment.

MOOCs could effectively compete with educational television programming, I imagine, but their production costs would have to approach those of PBS, BBC, and other educational television producers.

MOOCs currently seem to be a form of online educational entertainment. The Chronicle article points out that “The term ‘MOOCs’ is meant to parallel the video-game acronym ‘MMOGs,’ or massively multiplayer online games—collaborative worlds, like World of Warcraft, that have attracted millions of devoted players around the world. So perhaps it is no surprise that some MOOC students are driven to win as many certificates as possible and treat online lectures as a consuming pastime that keeps them from going outside to hang out with friends.” MOOC students then would represent educational gamers.

The strongest potential of MOOCs seems to be as a platform for professors to reach this broad public audience of educational gamers and become celebrities. MOOCs can serve as extended TED talks. The Chronicle article indicates that “When the students talked about the MOOCs they’ve taken, they usually mentioned the professor first. They sometimes couldn’t remember the name of the university offering the course.”

Professors are the “stars” and their digital courses are coming soon to a gamebox near you.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on MOOC students’ reactions to their online courses.

This entry was posted in Digital Humanities, Education Policy, Humanities Education, Information Management, Undergraduate Work in History. Bookmark the permalink.

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