It’s Time to Redirect the Conversation about MOOCs

So many exciting things are happening in higher education these days, it could make a guy’s hair fall out (see my photo at the bottom of this post). Most of the headlines have been about “massive” education and the stories may have left some people confused, or even a little worried.

Let’s look past the hype—and the hyperbole—and focus on the central question we should ask about any educational innovation: Are MOOCs about a better educational experience for students?  Or are they about efficiency and cost savings? Taken independently either is good and achieving both is better. But if the former is sacrificed for the latter, then I see long term systemic problems for higher education.

Massive has had a place in higher education for quite some time. It would be hard to argue that a large lecture hall of 300, 400, 500+ students is any different than a MOOC. In fact, the MOOC might be a better experience for students given the technologies used to provide feedback and connection. But a degree program comprised of MOOCs-a MOOP? This requires a bit more thought.

Not All Online Education is “Massive”
As part of a university system that has delivered online courses, programs and degrees for a very long time, I am troubled by what appears to be the inseparable link between online education and massive online education–that is, that “massive” is THE way to deliver online programs.  Most online degree programs are not MOOP(rograms)s. Like WSU’s Global Campus, they incorporate academic counseling to determine if the program of study is compatible with the student’s ability to succeed. They offer robust student support services to break down the isolation that often accompanies study at a distance. They require close student to student interaction through peer based assignments to build a sense of community. But most importantly, they need an engaged faculty inside and outside the classroom to mentor, guide, counsel and befriend students.  They’re not massive—our average course size is 27 students per course section.

Phot of students at a football game in WSU's stadium
Futuristic photo of students attending an on-campus MOOC at WSU’s Martin Stadium

But We are Learning from the “Massive” Experiment
While WSU doesn’t do massive courses, there are some lessons to be gleaned from other traditional universities testing the waters. The Georgia Institute of Technology announced (in partnership with Udacity and a 2 million dollar grant from AT&T) an online M.S. in Computer Science degree for under  $7,000. The on-campus equivalent costs between $25,000 and $45,000. The University of Wisconsin announced an online competency-based undergraduate program that uses subscriptions rather than tuition, and allows students to complete as many competencies as they can in a three-month period. The subscription is $2,250 per three-month term.

Is this revolutionary? Perhaps. Will it upend traditional education, just like, for example, the advent of radio put a slow down on live concerts? Could be. But fanfare doesn’t always translate into longevity.

For example, Colorado State University—Global Campus made national headlines last year when it announced it would accept credit for MOOCs. Instead of paying the $1,050 CSU tuition, students could pay an $89 assessment fee and receive credit if they passed a proctored exam. As of July 2013, not one student had signed up—this fact seems to be heralded with a kazoo, rather than trumpets. In May, the California higher education system was rocked when proposed legislation would require universities to accept credit for MOOCs. A couple of months later, the plan was tabled.

The Student Experience is Often Forgotten in MOOCs
This disconnect between publicity and reality (queue Secondlife) is real and, with the “massive” hype, can be traced to such factors as funding considerations—massive means more students connected to fewer faculty, then, Kaboom, cost savings.  But this conversation is often void of the most important element: The student experience.

MOOCs vary widely, but they usually involve a lecture, automated grading, and maybe a peer network to answer questions.  The faculty member is often an unreachable entity who helps create the course, then steps away from the actual learning process. New York Times columnist A.J. Jacobs completed 11 MOOCs, and describes them as having “the least accessible teachers in history.”

If MOOCs are an instructional innovation, then why not bring this innovation back to our campus. We might repurpose Martin Stadium for classroom use, put a prof at the 50 yard line and well… Or if it is not, let’s focus our discussion on the student experience, creating a student centered, faculty connected undergraduate learning experience.  Put bluntly, if the sole purpose of the university professor is to “act out” canned materials (live or archived) then yes, MOOCs are an instructional innovation.

Those students who have “experienced” MOOCs are often older, knowledgeable, and credentialed and, even so, many MOOCs offer an unenviable student success rate, some estimate that rate to be around 5%. Is it fair to expect a typical 18-year-old to thrive in an environment that requires academic confidence, preparation, and self-discipline?  We could look at the San Jose State University experiment with Udacity to provide a partial answer–where we see a younger population of students in need of remediation, not performing well in their MOOC.

Those at Georgia Tech might have reached that same conclusion.  According to a Georgia Tech FAQ, the CS online and on campus degrees are identical in outcome and rigor. If that is the case, then why would any logical person choose to pay an additional $18,000 to $38,000 for the same degree? Is it that some students might not be prepared for a MOOC environment? If that’s so, (cue the really uncomfortable question) who are those students ill-prepared to thrive in a MOOC? Might we envision a population that lacks access to effective high schools, who have had limited success in formal learning, and from a lineage unfamiliar with higher education? Is it prudent to create a system that requires the most disadvantaged students to pay more? And is it right? This may be a question that each university will need to answer independently.

The “Elite” Colleges Fascination with MOOCs
Let’s leave the pedagogical aspects of MOOPs for a moment and take a look at the current pioneers of the massive movement. Harvard and MIT (forming edX with $60 million in internal funding) have generated quite a bit of conversation around the idea of massive education. We should be clear, they are not advocating replacing their current curriculum with MOOCs. This movement appears to be a not-for-profit venture, looking to make money,  as opposed to an extension of their current brands.

To be direct, these universities do not see this educational product as a suitable menu option for their current and/or future students—the pomposity of such a proposal is something worthy of a much more thorough exploration. This exploration might start with Sir John Daniel’s statement that this policy is consistent but stupid and then MIT’s acknowledgment of “magic” in the learning process. A colleague who I admire greatly says it this way “they talk about brining the courses to the masses for free.  But they do it in a way that  I liken to going to the local pond and throwing breadcrumbs on the water for the ducks. It’s really not a solution to feeding the ducks, but a few of the more aggressive ducks get a nice treat.”

All that said, this is not unfamiliar ground–an “elite” expedition into massive education.  Columbia University, for example, lost millions of dollars in its Fathom project. “Although Columbia invested $25 million in the venture, and 65,000 people created accounts, Fathom failed to turn a profit, partly because few customers paid for any of the courses.” And consider AllLearn, a failed joint venture by Oxford, Yale and Stanford.

What is the Price of “Free”?
Then there is the cost of these free courses. Not to the student, but to the university. The cost to a university to play with edX is substantial. To offer a course through edX, is $50,000. If a university wants edX assistance building an online course, that’s $250,000, plus $50,000 every time it offers the course. I wonder at the sustainability of this type of investment in “free” courses.

On the corporate side, we have pioneers Coursera and Udacity. (it will be interesting to watch the recent  partnership of Google and edX). These are for-profit companies with deep pockets and I imagine expectations of making them deeper. Coursera was able to attract $48 million in venture capital recently. Can you imagine that pitch? “We plan to give away higher education for free and we need $48 million to do so.” Hmm … maybe they worded it differently.

While many for-profits do work to create an excellent product, we should ask a larger question. Is it wise to look to business to facilitate financial and social equity within our educational system? To answer in the affirmative, you have to ignore the fact that some of these companies have made an outsized contribution to the staggering growth in student debt.

Let’s Learn from MOOCs and Recapture the Microphone
There are certainly innovations and advancement to be gleaned from all these ventures and experiments, even the failed ones. There are new tools we can use to enhance on-campus education through flipping and blending, opportunities for remedial education with adaptive learning, increased access to educational opportunities through interactive online learning, improved student retention with early alert systems. That said, I think the most important development of all of this experimentation is a re-awakening to the purpose and nature of a college education.

These new technologies should be used to enhance the positive—supporting engaged faculty mentoring connected students participating in an interchange of ideas–and not to exacerbate the negative by removing the content and educational expertise (the faculty) from the student experience. Place the highest value not on the newest technological options, but on the very oldest element of instruction: the give and take of ideas between faculty and students.  At WSU Global Campus, all our online programs are built on the premise that technology can enhance that interaction, but should never be used to replace it.

I think it is time for those of us that have been leaders in “traditional” online education to wrestle the microphone away from the for-profits and latecomers—and begin to lead once again.Photo of David Cillay...who is bald

David Cillay
Vice President
Washington State University

Photo Credit:  Washington State University Athletic Communications

See the follow-on blog post: “The Audacity of MOOCs

Posted by

Executive Director WCET (WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies)

13 thoughts on “It’s Time to Redirect the Conversation about MOOCs

  1. David, thank you for the refreshing perspective. I fully agree. While MOOCs/MOOPs, (whatever) are interesting experiments and likely have a place at the table, it is frustrating that they are now on their way to being considered mainstream online learning. Those of us who have been focused on high quality fully online programs with engaged faculty and students as well as effective outcomes know that it takes more than a mass approach to education to make a difference.

    When MOOC hysteria calms and the massive model starts to stumble (as this is an inevitable part of the growth cycle), perhaps some of the focus will shift back to the work we have been doing. Maybe then we’ll have a wider audience with whom to share what is possible with dedicated faculty, enlightened pedagogy and committed student support.

    In the meantime, hand me the microphone.

  2. I agree that we should definitely grab the mic. At our college, we have done just that. Our resource MOOC provides an educational experience for students needing to improve their foundational writing skills (filling at least one foundational hole in the Swiss cheese!) We saw that this could fill a resource need for our remedial students and it appears to be working. It will never be offered for credit, but we do allow those who complete to reassess for placement. (please see my blog post

    Our class is different than what keeps being described as a MOOC in that we have a large staff of faculty and tutors working in the discussions to assist students and the conversations among students about writing are wonderful. The peer review and peer assessments also take the learner from “passive” to active participant in their own learning. One of our students said that she learned more from having the responsibility of reviewing another student’s assignment, than she did from her originally submitted assignment.

    There are big opportunities here and big misconceptions, too. The biggest is that students learn independently from instructors in a MOOC. I had someone ask me if I thought our class was less education than it was training. I whole-hardheartedly believe that ours is education and so do many of the students in the course.

    The second misconception is one I really worry about. The notion that all online learning is MOOC-like. I appreciate the disruption that focused the attention on DE. It has ignited conversations that were so needed. However, I am concerned that uninformed people will categorize all of DE in the same negative light that happens with critique of the MOOC phenomenon.

    No matter what happens going forward, I think we all should investigate innovation in all forms for what opportunities it may provide when we apply our educators’ creativity to it. To dismiss innovations, such as the MOOC, without first investigating its possibilities, is short sighted at best.

    Pat James
    Mt. San Jacinto College

    1. Hi Pat James,

      The concept that MOOCs would be mistaken for DE, or vice versa, never occurred to me.

      DE has been around ever since correspondence courses, after all.

      Everyone must make sure that the world understands the real potential for DE being greater learning for more people at lower cost.

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more. Having experienced several MOOCs in an effort to assess how they work, it is clear that these are not online courses that any of us would proudly use for helping students learn. The engagement of students with other students and/or faculty is a key component of most of the MOOCs so touted in the press. Following best practices is not what they are about. I’m not meaning to tar all of them with the same brush, but so many are fun and interesting to look at but not what I would call educationally sound examples of online learning. Maybe one day.

    1. Hi Barbara
      Please take a look at ours. We are proud of it. We put all that we know about DE effective practices into it.

      Your comment about MOOCs in general is what really hurts those of us who are doing good things with it.

      1. Pat,
        I know several MOOCs designed, as is yours, to help students needing that little extra learning in order to succeed in college. These are usually well designed and useful and well received by the students. But the ones that get hyped are generally not in that category and I believe that is what the writer of the blog post was talking about…as was I.

  4. The MOOC will have its place in the world. It may adapt and change how it looks in the future. MOOCs already are not free to students if those students wish more than just learning something for their own purposes. If you don’t count money alone, then they require more than ordinary courses; they require extra investment of time and effort on the part of students.

    Real learning does not take place in the MOOC described in the article: lectures, quizzes, and some peer involvement. This is “Swiss cheese” learning that leaves the students with holes and unanswered questions. Real learning requires the involvement of an expert to ensure that those holes don’t appear.

    What is good about MOOCs? Low cost. Good lecturers. Anywhere, anytime learning. The possibility for people not interested in degrees or credit to learn something not ordinarily accessible to them.

    What is bad about MOOCs? Where to start?! Passive learning. No way to ask questions and get answers from experts (peers can give misleading answers). Oh, and lots of stuff that currently is bad about many first-year university general education courses.

    I expect that these problems will be solved over time along with the no-cost turning into low-cost. The materials may remain freely accessible (or not), but a true learning experience will be available only for a fee. After all, it costs money to provide the experience. If the experience has any value, then people will pay. If not, the particular course will dissolve by itself.

    Some changes required include more interactive online experiences than lectures and quizzes provide and involvement of an expert of some sort with the students to whom they can address questions. Ideally, a weekly or twice-a-week seminar online, in-person, or both should be provided with an expert moderating the session. Because the effort by the expert is lowered, the cost can be less than what students currently pay, an outrageous $40,000+ per year at many institutions. With proper organization, that tuition could be cut in half using technology. Will it happen? It depends on how vibrant the higher-education marketplace really is. You certainly can find professors who wouldn’t mind being relieved of the duty to show up a lectures two or three times a week.

    The mutated MOOC I envision could be both better and less expensive. Let’s see what happens next.

Leave a Reply