Can schools make MOOCs work?

MOOCs still have a long way to go before becoming viable instruction alternatives.

by Luis Ruuska

A decade ago, an idea like massive open online courses would have seemed impossible.

Yet in recent years, developers from the Ivy League and even Google have jumped on the MOOC bandwagon, exponentially increasing MOOC’s prevalence in higher education.

In a world where we consume so much of our media digitally and do our social networking in the palm of our hands, MOOC seems like the next natural step in the digital age.

But MOOC also seems like the idealistic answer to quality universal higher education.

Anyone with an Internet connection can theoretically join a MOOC — even people in the most remote corners of the world could learn from some of the world’s best teachers.

But MOOCs as we know them today still have a long way to go before we can consider them as serious tools for higher education.

Since their inception, many have asked the question of whether people can ultimately learn from participating in a MOOC.

Because MOOC participants, which can number in the thousands or even tens of thousands, rely more on course material and peer evaluation than actual face-to-face faculty instruction or hands-on experience, critics wonder if MOOC is a viable education model.

A recent study, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, suggests that it’s not and that MOOCs are a long way from replacing or even disrupting traditional campus-based instruction.

In a study of 400 participants in a Harvard Medical School MOOC for health professionals, researchers found that students ended up learning passively instead of actively and failed to use their new knowledge in the workplace.

Researchers interviewed participants at the beginning of the course and found that many joined the MOOC hoping to gain new skills.

However, when researchers interviewed participants again during the middle of the course, they found that the participants’ focus had shifted to simply wanting to complete the course and get a good grade.

Furthermore, researchers found that although participants initially wanted to utilize social networking throughout the duration of the MOOC, most ended up doing as little peer interaction as possible.

Others have also questioned the financial viability of MOOCs, which are typically completely free for participants.

Instructors often put in hundreds of hours into their MOOCs with no pay. While thousands may sign up, many MOOCs have very low completion rates.

If MOOCs are to become more than just novelties of higher education, schools must learn to produce them in a cost-efficient way.

Considering that MOOCs are still less than a decade old, it’s natural that they are facing road bumps in their production and yielding imperfect results.

It’s natural to want technology that gets it right from the get-go, but when dealing with something as complex as higher education and how people learn, this is simply not the reality.

But I wouldn’t count MOOCs out yet. They have the potential to play a huge role in future higher education, even if they never fully replace brick-and-mortar institutions.