MOOCs Are So Much More Than Courses or Statistics

By Jessica Knott
Associate Editor
Editor, Twitter/Facebook

[Note: This article was first posted in ETCJ’s staff listserv this morning, in response to a discussion on Tamar Lewin’s “After Setbacks, Online Courses Are Rethought” (NY Times, 12/10/13). Lewin’s article was shared in a post by Harry Keller on 12/11/13. -Editor]

I have such a different view of MOOCs. Maybe it’s because I work on them from time to time.1 This e-mail won’t be nearly long enough to get my thoughts out because I’m super short on time. (I know, we all are, so that’s such a lame excuse.) But the analytics on MOOCs and the things that point to problems, such as 4% completion, 80% having degrees — in a way, I kind of see those as opportunities.

We talk about MOOCs as though they’re all one beast. I know it’s unintentional — but we do. Each MOOC is so different. Believe me, I’ve taken 23 of them. I have completed three. Some were so terribly constructed that I could get all of the correct answers to the content and still fail the quizzes. Some were so amazing that I couldn’t stop exploring and lost track of deadlines. Others? Well, others were just there. I’m sure they served their purpose, but they left no impression.

I see MOOCs like museums. You sign up, you go in and see what’s there. What do you want to get out of it? Some people are striving for that certificate. Others, like me, just want to pick up some new skills, or maybe learn some statistical tricks, or learn about scientific theories they’d never have a chance to interact with otherwise — if they had to pay.

More importantly, what *is* success in a MOOC? Is success completion? Or is success learning? Because, according to this conversation, the MOOCs have failed me. But I can tell you, while that’s true for a few of them, they’ve *far* from failed me. The conversation is shifting a little, from completion to potential. MOOCs are this really amazing thing. They can be a whole course experience, or they can be used as course content. They can stand alone, or be integrated.

I just think there is so much to the conversation and potential that can be lost if we look at MOOCs simply as courses or as statistics. Let me be clear. That’s not what I’m saying you’re doing here. I do feel that, sometimes, that’s what researchers tend to do. There is a real shift happening out there, though. It’s very exciting, that is, unless I’m a conference reviewer and reviewing your submission on MOOCs that looks like every other submission on MOOCs. Then you might not find it as exciting.

Ohio State is doing some things really right. Jesse Stommel has some great ideas. And, the standards, which I’m sure you’ve seen: Jim Groom, Alec Couros, Tanya Joosten, George Veletsianos, Amy Collier, etc. I have some blog posts, thought pieces, articles and resources if you’re interested. Let me know ( If I start sending them, there’s a good chance I’ll never stop.
1 See MOOC MOOC! The interview (9/11/13) and MOOCulus for Calculus Fun: An Interview with Tom Evans (7/11/13).

4 Responses

  1. Thank you, Jessica, for phrasing these ideas so well.

    The big picture here is that MOOCs are a new concept in education. Execution will vary enormously as implementers seek to find their way. I am really interested in the MOOC as content and in the future of online learning expanding far beyond the typical MOOC of today, beyond lecture-reading-quiz-peer discussion (if anyone is there). That model is a poor one for many learners, not just the people but their intentions in signing up.

    You’re absolutely correct regarding “success.” Having not done either the last homework or the final exam in my recent MOOC experience, many statistics would categorize me in the incomplete category. But, I consider that I did finish with what I intended and even received a virual ‘C’ without doing those assignments.

    Online learning is not merely about college credit.

  2. I love the way MOOCs allow me to learn at my own pace and assemble my own curriculum. First MOOC I finished was quantum computing & quantum mechanics; I felt a real sense of accomplishment. But that was the second time I took it. First time, I was not ready for the level of math and I lasted maybe 4 days. :-) Compare that to the traditional on-campus experience: if you register for a course and don’t complete it, that’s generally considered a failure of sorts.

    I have completed maybe 1/2 to 1/3 of the MOOCs I have signed up for. But I have learned something from every single one, finished or not.

  3. You said it well, “I see MOOCs like museums.” The problem is that they are called “courses” and aim to compete with traditional education. As far as we agree that MOOCs are not courses but fall into the category of free educational resources with “quizzes,” it would not matter what their completion rate is. The completion rate is important only if MOOC “courses” would be taken for college credit and are marketed to college students as a substitute to traditional universities. I have also greatly enjoyed the content of many MOOCs for personal growth and have not completed a single one.

  4. drxyzzy and dpedeva – I would love to interview you both for an article. Interested? Drop me an e-mail or hit me up on Twitter @jlknott. You have very interesting perspectives, and I think we could tie them together into something really informative!

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