Teaching Tip: Of MOOCs and Men

Fundamentally, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are good. From a moral standpoint, it’s difficult to argue against making higher education available to everyone. As with many new ideas in education though, there are some concerns about MOOCs. Who knows who’s actually taking the course? How do people get credit for the work that they do? Are students cheating? What about all the people who sign up but don’t participate?

As MOOCs evolve, they are gradually addressing some of these issues. EdX, the joint venture of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, partnered with Pearson testing centers so that students could take tests in a supervised setting (Kolowich, 2012b). Several state universities have begun working with the online course company Academic Partnerships to give degree credit for students taking MOOCs. Many of the problems that critics point out about MOOCs though, are only problems when viewing MOOCs as a replacement for conventional university courses. This might not be the destiny of MOOCs.

Think of MOOCs as the higher education equivalent of charter schools. They are funded differently, restricted by fewer regulations than traditional schools, and they are attended by choice. Just as the experiments of charter schools can be adapted by traditional public schools, the explorations of MOOCs can improve conventional higher education. Most valuable I think is the concept of openness. And I don’t just mean in terms of being available for free to everyone anywhere. Open courses result in a group of students that are qualified and engaged in the course. While this might seem a bit counterintuitive at first, follow my logic.

In a normal college environment, students usually have to pick a concentration, and they frequently have to fulfill some general education requirements as well. This leaves little room for experimentation or for the pursuit of hobbies and side interests. This is unfortunate, because students learn more effectively when they are passionate about a topic. Many students are passionate about their majors, but a surprising number are somewhat unsure of their choice and have other interests as well (Germeijs, Luyckx, Notelaers, Goossens, & Verschueren, 2012; Montmarquette, Cannings, & Mahseredjian, 2002).

When students enroll in a college course, they’re doing so partly because they want to learn the content, but partly because they are paying tuition and need to take classes, partially because the course is required for them to graduate, partially because their friends are taking it, because it fits in their schedule, or because it will pad their résumé (M. J. Hilmer & Hilmer, 2012). When students sign up for a conventional course, the choice is part of a much larger educational picture but when they enroll in a MOOC, they have no motivation other than their interest in the topic being taught, and their desire to learn more about it.

The open nature of MOOCs creates a population that is self-selected to be engaged and passionate. This is of course, with the exception of the people who are inspired to sign up for the MOOC and then don’t participate, or don’t finish. Since MOOCs are generally free, these students who fall by the wayside aren’t really a problem unless you’re trying to fit MOOCs into the mold of traditional higher education. Students who don’t like the course, don’t have the prior knowledge, or don’t have time for it just don’t finish it, and no harm is done.

But who are these students who so want to learn? Are they your students? MOOCs are relatively new, so there isn’t a huge amount of statistical data available just yet. EdX released an early data set from their Circuits & Electronics course, describing the students as 45% traditional college students, 50% 26 years or older, and 5% high school students. The range was 60 years. Interestingly, a full 80% of these students said they had previously taken a comparable course at a traditional university. Almost two-thirds of these students felt the MOOC was better than the traditional course, and only 1% felt it was worse (Kolowich, 2012a).

Now obviously this was a small and, as previously mentioned, a self-selecting population. However, the vast preference for a MOOC over a traditional course is still surprising, and probably a bit upsetting to some traditional professors and administrators. What pedagogical ideas can educators in a traditional setting take from MOOCs? Here’s a short list:

  • Accessibility is important. When students have access to their course material anywhere at anytime, they are more likely to engage in the course. This means not just assignments and syllabi, but informational content as well.
  • Create an atmosphere of open and constant discussion. In a MOOC, there’s no way for the instructor to answer every question. Instead, MOOCs rely on student-to-student learning through discussion forums. Implement opportunities for students to teach each other, either online or face-to-face.
  • By continuing discussion in the online realm (sometimes with prompting, sometimes without), students become more involved with content than they would through bi-weekly or tri-weekly meetings.
  • Emphasize content, not grades. Students don’t take MOOCs for a grade. They take them to learn. People don’t become teachers so that they can grade students. They do so because they want to pass on their knowledge. Classwork and homework should be used as learning tools, not opportunities to assign grades to students.

The necessity for adaptation and change is clear. Would MOOCs have captured the public’s interest and affections if the vast majority of people were content with their college learning experience? I think not. A survey conducted for Northeastern University in October 2012 found that among college-aged adults—ages 18-30— 90% felt that higher education in America “needs to change to remain competitive” (Mogilyanskaya, 2012). While many of these changes likely revolve around financing and admissions, some of them revolve around individual teachers and their classrooms. It’s unlikely that MOOCs will be the savior of traditional higher education, but we can learn from their teachings nonetheless.


Germeijs, V., Luyckx, K., Notelaers, G., Goossens, L., & Verschueren, K. (2012). Choosing a major in higher education: Profiles of students’ decision-making process. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 37(3), 229-239. doi: 10.1016/j.cedpsych.2011.12.002

Hilmer, M. J., & Hilmer, C. E. (2012). On the relationship between student tastes and motivations, higher education decisions, and annual earnings. Economics of Education Review, 31(1), 66-75. doi: 10.1016/j.econedurev.2011.09.004

Kolowich, S. (2012a). The MOOC survivors. Retrieved November 30, 2012, from http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/09/12/edx-explores-demographics-most-persistent-mooc-students

Kolowich, S. (2012b). MOOCing on site. Retrieved 11/30, 2012, from http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/09/07/site-based-testing-deals-strengthen-case-granting-credit-mooc-students

Mogilyanskaya, A. (2012). Americans are proud of U.S. colleges but not of their direction. Retrieved 11/27, 2012, from http://chronicle.com/article/Americans-Are-Proud-of-US/135942/

Montmarquette, C., Cannings, K., & Mahseredjian, S. (2002). How do young people choose college majors? Economics of Education Review, 21(6), 543-556. doi: 10.1016/S0272-7757(01)00054-1

— Guthrie

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