Is the pedagogy of MOOCs flawed?

This is a question that I tackle in my Udemy course The Wide World of MOOCs.

Almost immediately after I uploaded this preview to YouTube, someone on Twitter politely challenged me.

She took umbrage to my assertion that MOOCs are pedagogically richer than “regular” online courses.

Her counter argument was that the pedagogical devices that I cited – readings, online discussion forums, social media groups and local meetups – are the same learning and teaching functionalities available in any LMS.

While this claim is partly true, I wish to share with you my [elaborated] defence of my initial assertion. Why? Because I think it’s important to hear all POVs, and I’d like to know whether you agree…

Plastic play pieces on a network

Right off the bat, I don’t believe that all the pedagogical devices that I cited are available in any LMS. They may be available in many LMSs, but certainly not all of them. Moreover, although an organisation may have a subscription to an LMS that offers these devices, it may not have them activated.

That of course is not to say that the e-learning designer is prevented from using these devices; for example, he or she might leverage other non-LMS technology within the organisation or in the cloud. However, in my experience and in conversations with others, it is clear that they often don’t.

Again, that’s not to say that no e-learning designers integrate devices such as online discussions and social media groups into their LMS-hosted courses, but even if they do, the target audience tends not to play ball. How to encourage active participation on social platforms is a hot topic in the L&D sphere, and there is no easy answer because it’s a question of organisational culture which can’t be “fixed” over night.

As for local meetups, in all my years I have never seen this offered in a regular online course!

MOOCs, on the other hand, are the polar opposite. All of the MOOCs I have experienced include readings, online discussion forums, social media groups and local meetups. And the participants do participate. Sure, that’s to be expected given the massive scale of MOOCs, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Case in point, the University of Edinburgh’s E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC is one of the best online courses I have ever experienced. While it had its fair share of pro’s and cons, it was a hell of a lot richer than the boring page turners that too many among us have learned to associate with “e-learning”.

And there was no LMS in sight.

29 thoughts on “Is the pedagogy of MOOCs flawed?

  1. Great post Ryan… I think that the joy of MOOCs is that we the students come without having been squashed by the weight of institutional expectations – we become co-participators, we turn even an xMOOC into a cMOOC by our discussions, our engagment our PLN… Heutagogy rules!

  2. I just saw your post and I felt I had to share my 2cents worth of thoughts about MOOCs. Whilst I agree with you that MOOCs are somehow different in the way the participants approach their learning pathways, I think that what you write about here is a bit over simplistic.
    I know that this is an issue of debate that, you know, can take many words to describe, and possibly a good many hours of discussion, but in my opinion, what renders MOOCs different from any LMS is much more complex than the richness of the material and the participation. In theory, what you mention, and what your ‘challenger’ mentioned is true – the readings, the blogs, the video uploads, the forum discussions – these are so doable over an LMS. Most LMS have the options to insert all of these. In comes discussion point 1 – the instructional design, the learning design, or the pedagogical design. Whereas the people designing MOOCs seem to have certain design features driven by a pedagogy that focuses on interaction, what I see from my own academic experience, are a bunch of people who simply use an LMS to upload a series of slide presentations and maybe some additional readings.
    Point 2 is the crowd participation – which once again focuses on the design. It seems that whereas MOOCs focus a lot on student activity – assigning responsibility to the learner choosing that particular course or study module, LMS that are part of structured courses seem to be doing the opposite. There are almost weak expectations for students – whose ultimate scope would be that of passing the exam or obtaining a grade for his/her assignment.
    Speaking of which I would say, would lead us to Point 3 and that is assessments. Again, all the objects of assessment used by MOOCs could potentially be used in an LMS. The question is: why aren’t they?
    And point 4 (I am rushing here but I don’t want to launch into an essay on the subject) is the linearity of how the subject is presented to the learners. Although theoretically an LMS can have a structure that offers branching networks to learning (similar to a MOOC), the most common form of following, experienced by learners using an LMS, is through a very structured linear pathway – which in the end, is I believe, one of the reasons why LMS pedagogy is flawed whilst the opposite holds true for well designed MOOCs. The pillars on which MOOCs are built – the branching, the flexibility of the learning directions taken by the participants choosing to undertake course following this modality, are I think one of the main reasons for their massive popularity. Of course, being massively open, and having the possibility to create new and diverse networks and possible collaborations certainly helps to add to the excitement of following the course.

  3. @ danceswithcloud – Thanks for your comment. “We turn even an xMOOC into a cMOOC by our discussions”… well put!

    @ Seriously Virtual – Thanks for sharing your 2 cents worth, I appreciate it. Indeed, I am being over simplistic (I didn’t want to launch into an essay either). I agree with all the points you raise, but I suspect I am more forgiving of the linearity of many LMS-based courses – as per Of course linearity can be complemented with rich pedagogy, so linearly structured content need not consitute just another boring page turner. Regardless, I think it all boils down to the purpose of the learning: is it to discover, explore and collaborate, or is it to learn something quickly and efficiently? Obviously it depends on the circumstances of the situation, so MOOCs and “regular” online courses both have their place. Thanks again for such a thorough comment :0)

  4. I’m afraid I don’t agree with you that MOOC pedagogy, specifically the xMooc, is a step forward. Much more like three steps back. Most of the MOOCs I’ve participated in have been basically video lectures followed by discussion forums that were quite difficult to follow or participate in. There were just too many people involved, which prevented meaningful interactions. In each course, enthusiastic small groups were formed but quickly disintegrated as people dropped out. With up to 95% attrition rates, this would seem to be expected, rather than the exception.

    Assessment in all of the classes has been a joke IMHO. The MCQs were terrible, worse than usual actually. Peer review is a fine component of assessment, but it cannot be the primary means. At some point in time, it requires an authority. Sheer numbers prevent this.

    I do agree that the Edinburgh MOOC was an exception, but mainly because it was really a cMOOC in an xMOOC environment. I thought the Google Hangouts were a good idea, but they worked because of the number of instructors involved. With only one instructor and without interaction, it would end up being just another lecture.

    Also, since your course is on Udemy, is it actually open? Once you charge for a MOOC, I would argue it’s no longer truly open. I’m sure it’s cheaper than a face-to-face course, but then we’d have to discuss whether there’s any true equivalency between the two.

    I’m all for online learning, particularly when it reaches populations that otherwise would not have access to this information. But it seems the purpose of xMOOCs is financial, not access.

  5. Thanks for your contribution, George.

    I need to clarify my position. I don’t promote the xMOOC as a step forward; it is what it is, and my view is that it may be appropriate in certain circumstances (just as a cMOOC may be *inappropriate* in certain circumstances).

    I agree with you that the sheer number of participants – particularly in the early stages – are a problem. Too many people talk “at” their fellow participants rather than “with” them, which I found quite irksome. However I did devise some tactics that helped overcome this; for example, replying to someone else’s post rather than posting a new one of my own, which tended to prompt a response and so a meaningful conversation could continue.

    I found the social media groups (particularly the Google Plus community) to be more amenable to collaboration. Yes, plenty dropped off, but IMHO a quorum of smart, motivated people remained to make the interaction meaningful. I still interact with them today, long after the mooc has ended.

    I also think local meetups make a real difference to the interactivity. I was skeptical of these and didn’t join one in the edcmooc; however I supported one more recently for a popular mooc among my co-workers and I observed its positive effect.

    I also agree with your view of the assessments. I’m not a fan of peer review as the primary means, as by undertaking the course the participants are by definition unqualified to assess it! In general I’m not against MCQs if they are used to help the learner confirm their understanding, but yes they are usually done very poorly. However, I think the assessment component of the mooc is not its most important aspect; yes, you need some means to qualify for the certificate of completion, but I strongly position moocs in terms of *informal leaning*. To me, it’s not about the assessment or the certificate, but the learning experience and the networking.

    My course on Udemy is not a MOOC (oh the irony). It’s not open and it’s certainly not massive. So it’s an online course.

    I don’t quite get your point about the purpose of xMOOCs being financial… how so?

  6. I don’t mean to impugn the motives of the teachers who came up with the concept, but Coursera and Udacity are both startups funded by venture capitalists. Generally, the purpose of this type of company is to establish the product or in this case the proof of concept and then sell to the highest bidder.

    My fear is that once sold, these companies will cherry pick the most profitable classes, the large lectures, while leaving the smaller, more expensive classes behind. This will really affect the regional university that will either have to cut programs, increase class sizes or raise tuition. Ideally, these schools will come up with a new model for the large lecture to compete, but we haven’t seen that yet.

    Politicians have also started touting MOOCs as a way of lowering the cost of higher education, so we can see where this is heading. The Georgia Tech masters in computer science is the first example, priced at about 20% that of their regular masters. I’d be plenty unhappy if I was in that program on-campus. Either I’m being overcharged by a lot or my degree is being dramatically devalued.

  7. Ah yes, I see what you mean.

    Indeed Coursera and Udacity are business ventures. While their financial sustainability has been brought into question, I remember reading this article that reports that Coursera has begun to bring in revenue: “Free to Profit”

    I may be naïve, but I maintain that a freemium (if not free) model can persist. But if they sell off, who knows?

    I think what we’re seeing from Georgia Tech is a natural progression of online education. Having said that, I suspect they haven’t fully considered the pressure it will put on themselves to add value to the on-campus experience. Otherwise it begs the question: why would anyone bother?

  8. Do not worry

    MOOCs are not massive any way .

    Finishers are at most 500-1000.

    Partiisipation can be perfect among 1000 people .

  9. I believe that the concept of Moocs is a good one, but they also have many flaws, the main one being that like traditional teaching they are linear with a beginning and an end. So what is wrong with this?

    I have been using a learning management system for many years now. I was one of the first to introduce Moodle to my University. Now it has been embraced and along with it has come the IT mafia rules, regulations and best (???) practice. Perhaps this was what made me realise it was time to move on. Perhaps it was the influence of MOOCS. Whatever the reason I now have all of my courses on open web sites (WordPress).

    It is still experimental and I am learning all the time. I am also flying under the radar, as university bureaucracy is the killer of any innovation. Much better to serve up a chapter 1, chapter 2 approach, if you want to be safe. Essentially I am just teaching my regular class, and I use the LMS for weekly pointers and for assessment submission. When the course is completed however the students will still have access to all of the course content which will continue to evolve and be developed online. Instead of using Moodle forums which are clumsy we have embedded Talki forums on the web page that use Facebook connect so anyone (whether student or not) can contribute. One thing I have noticed that particularly interests me is that students contribute to the forum posts in a non-linear way (basically for all my ‘innovation’ I am still topic 1, topic 2….). The web is not linear. Student thinking is often not linear so how can we tap into this better?

    I welcome MOOCS, but often just see them as a continuation of the same old linear model we have traditionally used. Truly open, courses with no beginning, middle or end are what I aspire to. Harnessing conversation and interaction in a truly collaborative learning experience for all participants.

  10. Sent this the other day but it was lost somehow — didn’t hit the right button, I guess. I think it would be great fun to do a Google Hangout on this subject. Anyone interested? I’ll set it up and manage it.

  11. @ Ian Knox – Thanks for your comment, Ian. Best of luck with your guerrilla teaching!

    @ Jack Gill – Sorry Jack, that was my mistake. Let me know the details and I’ll promote it to my network.

  12. MOOC is just this year’s new terminology for e-Learning. People, such as yourself, who are jumping on the bandwagon are extolling the virtues of MOOCs,because….? I don’t get it.

    Perhaps the MOOC is an evolution of e-Learning. I don’t think so. The terminology of MOOC is something that certain well-known institutions of higher education have used to describe what they do for open-source (FREE) courses that they offer online…perhaps as a way to attract public (and later, media) interest in their respective institutions.

    e-Learning is e-Learning is…e-Learning at the end of the day. Call this system what you will, but it certainly is not new. Not to me, an instructional design professional of many years. It’s not new to folks who regularly tune in to youTube for information on sundry topics — the biggest MOOC there is (the comments page on the bottom of the vid could be considered the discussion forum).

    On a side note, the biggest issues confronting the so-called MOOC is how this thing can be funded so that it can continue to be available for free and certification for coursework viewed on theses things — will this be possible and will it be considered legitimate by professional employers?

  13. Thanks for your comment, Kelvin.

    I think there is something in your statement “MOOC is just this year’s new terminology for e-Learning”. While I think MOOCs are a definable subset of e-learning and are worth distinguishing as such, I sometimes get the sense that those who rail against MOOCs are railing against e-learning generally.

    I am indeed extolling the virtues of MOOCs, though I must stress that I don’t think they are perfect nor appropriate in all circumstances. Nonetheless you ask me why. I think that’s worth a blog post of its own, but off the top of my head I can think of two main reasons: (1) Access to quality content, for free, from some of the world’s best educational institutions; and (2) Interaction with smart and enthusiastic peers from around the world (both during and after the course has run). If you are in the corporate sector, you may also be interested in another blog post of mine – “7 big opportunities that MOOCs offer corporates”

    Could YouTube be considered a MOOC? That’s a fascinating question and I think an argument could be made in its favour.

    In terms of funding, I mentioned in a previous comment an article that reports that Coursera has begun to bring in revenue: “Free to Profit” Beyond affiliate sales and verified completion certificates, I think there is scope for other fee-based activities such as proctored assessments, and the likes of Coursera might even claim a finders fee for students who go on to enrol in the university’s program. But I’m speculating.

    You also ask whether MOOC study will be considered legitimate by professional employers. I remember online education in general being asked that same question. I think verified completions, proctored assessments etc can help, but I must re-state my preference for viewing MOOCs through the lens of informal learning. To me, it’s not about the certificate, but rather the learning experience and the networking.

  14. What seems to be lost among this debate is the learner. MOOCs have made learning more accessible, anytime, anywhere and on any device – they’ve taken the pains of registration, costs, and access away from learners. Unlike MOOCs, LMS serve the learning group – not the learner. LMS are closed off requiring licenses, fees and tracking that institutional hierarchy desires. As such, LMS organizations focus on protecting their investment of knowledge for the group’s sake and close off the outsiders in order to maintain a sense of control unlike MOOCs which leave control to the indivuidual and his/her wants and needs as demonstrated by lower completion rates.
    Neither LMS nor MOOCs are perfect, but each has clearly identified with its target audience. LMS providers – like higher-Ed itself must evolve if they are to exist to compete effectively in the next 5 years.

  15. @ Jason Mesiarik – I tend to agree, Jason. The LMS is a good system for managing (formal) learning, whereas MOOCs are more about self-direction and discovery. I would be interested in your POV on this one – “The future of learning management”

  16. For a column that states it is “provoking deeper thinking” I’m not seeeing it evidenced by your reasoning or comments. You complain that your critic’s assertion that all LMS have interactive elements is not accurate, but then you make equally inaccurate claims about MOOCs. You imply all MOOCs have meet-ups and assert that they are more interactive. I have been in several that had no meet-ups have not been interactive at all, not in any substantial sense. In your video you state that “evidently it works” but that seems more observation and not a fact-based assertion. Frankly, you seem to be stating observations based on personal experience, without actually using any sound form of reasoning.

    I have participated in several MOOCs , and found them less educationally engaging or effective than most of the online courses (not elearning tutorials) I have taken. I think you will find a good body of research that indicates that more traditional interactive online pedagogy can be very effective. Personally, the MOOCs I attended had lots of garbage – many commenters added little to the discussion, a lot of time wasted. There was little or no real connection – just faux, superficial chatter. Those with the biggest mouths often had the least to say content-wise. And very little leadership from the instructor.

    You also assume that the student will be equipped to work independently, which is what a MOOC really requires. None of the MOOCs I was personally in had any sort of support for the student who could not or did not participate due to weak academic skills.

  17. You are right LQ, I am stating observations based on my personal experience (and on conversations with others in my network). This is my blog, after all, not a peer-reviewed journal!

    I’d like to clarify that I didn’t state that all moocs have meetups, but that all of the moocs I have experienced have had meetups. I made this point in contrast to all of the regular online courses that I have undertaken.

    I have read some of the research that you refer to that indicates that more traditional interactive online pedagogy can be very effective. Preaching to the converted.

    I’m sorry to hear that your own mooc experience hasn’t been a very good one. The superficiality of the collaboration (especially in the first week or so) and the lack of instructor activity in the discussions are two of the “cons” that I have called out previously – “Reflections of a mooc unvirgin”

    I also assume that the student will be equipped to work independently. Again, I have previously described the successful mooc participant as highly motivated, autodidactic, connected, and participatory – “10 hot tips for moocers”

    Thanks for sharing your observations with me.

  18. I have not yet participated in a MOOC but have been considering it, since the cost of conventional higher education is presently beyond me. As a non-linear mearner they are also attractive but, at present, in order to further my employment prospects, the lack recognised qualification outcome is a disadvantage. Looking at the arguments presented in the discussion here it is clear that there are indeed flaws in the MOOC pedagogy. The value of self-direction and discovery is acknowledged but this is not the product being marketed, or at least it is not the popular perception of the product represented by a MOOC. While local meetups and social network interactivity may be touted as features of “good” MOOCs cf conventional LMS, the very fact that they are offered across the world to very different geographic, linguistic and temporal groups limits their usefulness in the context. As for content from well-recognised institutions, there is no monopoly on good content, particularly in those disciplines to which MOOCs are suited. In order to maintain exclusivity of reputation it will be necessary for such institutions to provide a premium in non-MOOC offerings. In general I think MOOCs are potentially one excellent way to acquire knowledge (and perhaps some skills) but with more limited scope for participants to subsequently apply it.

  19. Thanks for your comment, Satiutni.

    I’d advise caution in substituting moocs for a college degree, though I acknowledge that significant barriers exist for many people around the world. IMHO, moocs are not designed to replace college, but rather supplement it or complement it. (Having said that, my lens is corporate education, not higher education.)

    If formal certification is important to you, you may be interested in Coursera’s Signature Track: Through this means you can earn (for a fee) what Coursera calls a “verified certificate”.

    I’m surprised by your take that because local meetups and social network interactivity are offered across the world to different geographic, linguistic and temporal groups, this limits their usefulness in context. I would have thought that, on the contrary, localisation and segmentation *improves* the contextual understanding because you are interacting with people who speak your language, live in your timezone, work in your town, etc. I suppose I don’t have a sufficient appreciation of this aspect of moocs as I am a native English speaker in a Western country. However, from a personal point of view, I appreciate the diversity of thought that participants from other countries and cultures contribute to the conversation.

    You also say there is no monopoly on good content. On this I whole-heartedly agree. I don’t like Coursera’s ringfencing of elite universities: it assumes that all professors and all programs from these institutions are superior, when of course that is not the case. Yet Coursera is one mooc platform. Lesser known universites could use another platform or even their own infrastructure to deliver their own moocs – and in doing so, show off to the world how good they really are.

    In regards to participants applying their learning in the real world, that’s an age-old question to which moocs are not immune. I have seen the learning from a mooc which a number of my colleagues undertook applied back in the workplace, but of course it’s all highly dependent on the content of the mooc and the circumstances of the learner.

  20. Your point about moocs not being a substitute for university education is well taken, although in researching my own options those subjects I am interested in seem largely to be university equivalent courses offered as moocs. There has been some considerable discussion here in Australia about the public perception of moocs as an alternative to conventional pathways to higher education.
    Corporate culture here has not yet, thankfully, reached the prominence it has achieved in USA and to some extent Britain and Europe, so I understand the economic appeal of moocs as a vehicle for corporate specialisation.
    While localisation is hypothetically a good thing it is not necessarily always practical. I have actually just enrolled in a mooc offered through the University of Cincinnati, Innovation and Design Thinking. The prospect of local meetups and networking around this course is remote so, while localisation is real and valuable in an urban situation, where there may be many local participants, that does not necessarily apply to the world at large.
    Thanks for the Coursera reference although their, admittedly modest, fees are presently beyond me.
    For those already following a career path I can agree supplementation with career specific training is a good thing, although, as a former corporate trainer, I don’t see moocs adequately providing an alternative to in-house or on-the-job training, despite their appeal from a corporate economic perspective.

  21. Hi Ryan, as a student looking to obtain my M.S. in instructional design (all online degree) here is my humble P.O.V. I am not steeped in the use of Mooc’s vs traditional online courses, (Yet!) but it seems to me that the approach is different, and I think that the approach is a key to determining the richness and depth. I also think it depends on the learner’s definition of ‘rich’. If we are talking abundunce, then clearly MOOC’s win. The ability to have the wealth of online materials at your fingertips and 13,000+ classmates to discuss and network with that’s pretty abundant!
    But, I don’t define rich as abundant because it is also of course about quality,not just quantity. My first online course used discussion boards, reading and writing. My second course does all that plus introduced me to blogging and using blogs as learning tools and resources and the establishment of a network of professionals. While both of these courses have enriched me, for this learner, the second is richer because I am also networking outside my class, I am also coming across articles and blogs that are a little more off the beaten path and most important, I am really driving my selection of learning materials. From your video snip, it sounds like MOOC’s offer all that and more, so I am going to have to agree with you based on that aspect. The approach is different. As I further my endeavors in this industry, I will let you know if I keep that opinion or change my mind. Thanks!


  22. Thanks for you comment, Karen.

    I suppose I would qualify by saying that MOOCs *can* offer all that and more. Each MOOC is different, just as each college course is different :0)

  23. I am glad to hear that MOOCs are good pedogogially.
    So the sayings of many teachers are obsolete .
    But be sure thyere are good MOOCs and bad MOOCs too .

  24. Not all MOOCs but EDX is qualified to replace the traditional HE .
    Old online has been in USA for 20 years. It has been accepted . 7 million 39 % of the HE students are taking online and degrees too .
    No so much complain about it .
    Then we have to accept EDX as a wonderful solution if they provide degrees too.
    They should make a small fee too . Such as $ 10-50 per course .

  25. Thanks for your comments, mgozaydin.

    You are right: some teachers support moocs, others criticise them. Indeed, there are good moocs and bad moocs.

    I haven’t tried an edX course myself, but with the likes of MIT and Harvard backing it, I expect its quality would be up to scratch. Whether it would replace “traditional” HE… I don’t think so, at least not right now. However, if they expand and deepen their offerings, who knows?

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