MOOC – Setup for Failure?

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Unless you have been like Rip Van Winkle for the past few years, you are well aware of the latest rage in online education – MOOC.

Massive Online Open Courses – better known as MOOC – are big – in terms of courses, end users and online learning.

But the premise is not living up to its potential – and it is not due to the content – rather it is due to an inherent flaw that exists in e-learning in the higher education setting – synchronous based.

What are MOOCs?

As the term applies, MOOCs are massive online open courses.

  • Originally coined by Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island in 2008
  • Learners can be located anywhere in the world and as such thousands to hundreds of thousands may be taking at least one course simultaneously
  • Instructors (or professors or whomever) engage (at least in theory) with learners at some level – either via a discussion board, forum, chats, e-mail, etc.
  • Similar to a degree like the classroom setting but online, whereas the online classes start at a specific date, have a length period and a end date
  • Often contains some level of social learning – but not always
  • Free (at least for now, although some have a small fee)
  • While the initial premise was that MOOCs could not earn course credit, this is changing
  • Courses come from a variety of universities, colleges – including some of the biggest names out there – MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Duke
  • Partnerships with companies such as Coursera, whereas courses come from 33 universities – i.e. one stop shop
  • Ability to locate courses via free course aggregators/directories/lists online

Completion Rates

I’d argue that completion rates are the one of the biggest sticking points to MOOCs. Based on conversations I have had with numerous people including those who have taken or are taking MOOCs the rates are dismal. Katy Jordan, a doctorate student from Open University, has conducted research and found less completion rates at less than seven percent.  She has an outstanding site on this information regarding the data.

The Inherent Flaws to MOOCs

I’d argue that MOOCs are inherently flawed and setup for failure – not from the content standpoint, rather from online higher education angle.  Here are my reasons:

  • Start date and completion date – similar to a classroom setting – basically you are going online on your free time to take a course with a specific start date – how is this different than attending a brick and mortar class?
  • Instructor based – The whole premise that an instructor or whomever is “teaching” the class adds validity I suppose to its value, but it assumes that the professor/instructor will be active (which may or may not be true) and that they are an outstanding educator in the classoom (which may or may not be true)
  • Assignments including suggested readings – Again the courses for the most part are free, who in the heck wants to have assignments/projects or whatever and who wants to go read on their own time. If this course was at the Master’s level or Doctorate (and thus tied to a program) sure understandable, but it is not.
  • Assumption that students will be engaged – Come on, give me a break. When people take classes how many are 100% engaged? Heck you cannot even find that in corporate training classes – online or brick and mortar.
  • If a social learning component exists – the premise that learners will utilize it – again, if I do not use any form of social right now, or use it sparingly what makes you think, I will do so in a MOOC?
  • Extremely rare to receive credit and when you do so, it is not tied to a program to achieve the actual degree. Those who offer credits are credits just for those courses.  So, you get your three credits or however many and then what do you do with that?
  • Some charge a small fee, most are free.  Free is good, but free often comes at a cost. For the fee based – small or otherwise the assumption many see is that fee means higher quality and better – not necessarily true.  If universities begin to offer credits to MOOCs free, it returns back to the previous argument – what do you do with that?
  • If credits turns into a fee based (regardless of the price point), how is this different than attending the university itself, unless you can attend “free” to attain the credits, without any requirements such as an application, etc. – and again, what do you do with the credits? Can you apply them to the university you are attending? Can you apply them to some continuing education program? Can you apply them to your workplace for value? And what if you are doing none of those things? What do you do then?
  • Lack of intrinsic value on the part of the learner. The WIFM (What’s in it for me) applies here – which many people tend to forget. Adult learners, especially those in the workplace, have often an assumption that by taking a course (online or otherwise) will mean something to them back in the workplace. Unless those standards are set to exist, the value to take and complete will fail.
  • You get a certificate. Many MOOCs offer that – but I would argue, big deal. Again, where is the value and benefit to the adult learner, besides hanging it up on their wall or sticking it in their drawer? Can I use the certificate to help me find a job – and will a potential employer see the benefit of it? Especially if the certificate is for something non related to what someone is seeking or doing?  Okay you get a certificate for cultural aspects of museums. Awesome – you can do what with that again?

The Failure of Online Education at the Higher Education Level

I’ve been a staunch advocate for the change in online learning at the higher education level, because honestly it just doesn’t work.  The online learning approach that 95% of higher education institutions follow is synchronous based, which is quite different than what form of online learning exists in the corporate setting – asynchronous based.

What is synchronous based?

Synchronous based learning has always existed, especially at the education level – mainly in higher education. 

  • Instructor/Professor/Whomever is teaching the online class – exists – i.e. a real person
  • Start and completion dates – the real premise of online learning, specifically WBT (web based training) is the ability to go into the course whenever you want, and as often as you want, thus there is no start or completion dates
  • Assignments/Projects/Etc. – basically engagement using the standard classroom based approach to learning.  Why do we follow an approach that has existed since the days of school house, especially in 2013?
  • Discussion boards/Forums – students must or tend to leave (depending on the requirements) discussions/comments related to an assignment/reading/project and other students must respond – often with more than a simple “yeah, I agree”. Discussion boards rocked in 1994, but are we still stuck on them in 2013?
  • The professor/instructor/whomever should read the discussion board and post their own comments – the onus is left with them to do so – many don’t.
  • Assumption that the professor/instructor/whomever will be engaged at all times. Someone who is a poor teacher/educator will not automatically change in the online learning environment. Poor is poor.
  • Office hours – come on, really? When I taught at a university and had office hours, I rarely had students come in – even if I offered to help them do better in the classroom
  • A syllabus
  • Groups – group chats, group oriented. Small group communication theory shows that you will always end up with one leader and then followers. Okay, makes sense. But if you have ever attended or been involved in a group at the university level, many times some students will not pull their own weight or even show up. Guess what? It still will apply to the online learning setting.
  • Professors/Instructors who believe that it is a brick and mortar classroom even though it is online. I know of several students – adult learners who were in a MBA program who found out that their professor had specific times when an assignment must be turned in. If they were late by one minute it was declined. 
  • Failure for real engagement and interactivity and most importantly fun.  You can achieve all those things and still show value and benefit – but it never exists in synchronous based learning, because SBL isn’t set up that way.

Turning Failure to Success

Here is a novel idea. Create a course that brings in real life scenarios and interactivity for the online learner (student).  Apply the information which is learned at whatever approach so that the student can use it in the course. 

People love real world because it works. Theory on the other hand, is theory.

How many times have you gone or completed a course/seminar/whatever and said to yourself, that doesn’t apply to me?  How many folks who complete a degree or take higher education classes say to themselves years later, that the information doesn’t nor did relate to what they are doing or set out to do?

I know for myself that occurred. 

Let’s say you have a course in accounting. You learn the principles for that section and then the course is self-contained (asynchronous based) and all the variables and possibilities exist. The student is tasked with doing the books for a company (at whatever level) and must achieve a result of success.  Real world meets real application of information.

Let’s remove tests and assessments. What does that really tell you?

That the person knows how to memorize or guess? How does that really apply to the real world? I’d rather see them apply the information they have learned in a real life application and do well, even if it means they get to do it as often as they want then just score some points to meet whatever is set.

How to Make MOOCs succeed – boosting completion rates

A simple set of recommendations

  1. Change the course approach to asynchronous based learning – if you must have lock-downs – i.e. you cannot go to step B before Step A – you can still have a set of modules (Five to 10 minutes max) that the student can go into and apply the information using scenario based learning
  2. Utilize WIFM. If the learner completes the course and receives a certificate – then at the workplace it means something. Perhaps a benefit to their professional development/growth. Or it applies to their continuing education credits in an association or whatever they are doing that requires CEUs. Maybe it can apply to the courses they are taking or required to take via your own LMS (if your business has one). 
  3. If you are going to offer credits tie it into a program, but remove the standards of “applying” that currently is in place.  Charge a fee if you must, but make it realistic and not the same as in the classroom or attending the university. Remove the financial aid aspect by making it affordable.
  4. Re-train the instructors/faculty. This means changing the way they think in terms of online learning. It is not the same as classroom based and as such, the way they create the courses does not apply.
  5. Tie into universities or schools that offer instructional design or instructional technology degrees. These people know how to create courses and could help in creating those ABLs you need. Best of all, they need the experience which means they will likely do it for free.  There are plenty of universities out there that offer these degrees.  If you want to go even more basic, check out associations who have instructional design folks or even e-learning developers.  You might be surprised how many will help.
  6. Think out of the box. I know it is stretch, but school house learning for the 1700’s doesn’t work online. It never has and never will.
  7. Add interactivity. Seems simple enough right? But sadly it rarely shows up in higher education online courses. This means more than social. If you want basics add some gamification.
  8. Remove start and completion dates. Remove assignments and projects. The people taking MOOCs are doing it on their own time, let’s not forget that.

Bottom Line

Regardless of what you say or believe, MOOCs are not working. Completion rates are poor, courses are boring, and the true premise of online learning is not being used.

Until higher education sees this, as corporate already does, then it will continue to fail.

As they say, a pig dressed up in the latest fashion (okay, I said that) is still a pig.

And right now, so are MOOCs.

But they are not a pig, rather they are a dud.

For all learners.

E-Learning 24/7

image attribution: Mathieu Plourde,


  1. We developed some of the seminal concepts for interactive individualized instruction at WICAT in the late 70’s and early 80s. We also created a Classroom Management System, first on the Apple II and then the first IBM PC. It was based on the SRA Math Lab and Reading Lab kits and was assessment based with prescriptions to current textbooks. It allowed students to advance at their own pace and was mastery based. The math problem generator with linked to the learning objectives and mastery had to be achieved before the student moved to the next level. The problem generator created random problems within the framework of the objective ( e.g., “Add two 1-digit numbers, no regrouping”; Add two 2-digit numbers regrouping to units, etc.).. With the introduction of learning objects, this allows developers to create small modules (5-10 minutes of instruction) with a short assessment to measure mastery. The integration of games and simulations also enhances learning.. I suggest people who are developing online courses go back and read the Society for Applied Learning Technologies (SALT) proceeding 1981 to 1996 for research, studies and ideas for developing and implementing effective individualized interactive instruction.

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