MOOCs as Non-Disruptors: So, Where Do we go From Here?

I like to call this the year of disruption,” says Anant Agarwal, president of edX, “and the year is not over yet.” New York Times (November 2, 2012)

Chaos Ahead Traffic SignMassive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are not disrupting traditional higher education as predicted by Anant Agarwal, president of edX almost one year ago. To date, MOOCs are not bubble-busters, tuition-busters, or even ‘democratizers’ of higher education. Granted MOOCs do show great promise for continuing education and professional development for working adults, but the value of MOOCs in undergraduate education is questionable. Moreover, the lack of data supporting positive learning outcomes with the MOOC format is for the most part, nonexistent. Given that considerable time, money, and energy have preoccupied institutional resources as applied to MOOCs, now is as good as time as any to re-focus and leverage what we do know about MOOCs gleaned from faculty and instructor experiences.

Discussions about improving access and expanding graduation rates by leveraging technology effectively has stalled in recent months by over-exuberance and misinformation about MOOCs. It doesn’t help that several institutions have excluded faculty and other affected stakeholders from conversations and strategic planning in the first place. Open dialogue about a variety of topics with stakeholders is needed, for instance discussions about i) the changes in knowledge acquisition due to abundance of information and resources, ii) the use of mobile devices, iii) student demand for learning anytime and anywhere, iv) online learning and MOOCs [and the difference between the two], v) open educational resources, etc.

The Way Forward
Constructive discussions leading to position statements or institutional guidelines for each of these areas should include affected stakeholders,  BUT a starting point is productive discourse by informed parties. A core element of any successful debate, negotiation or constructive discussion is knowledge of the topic at hand. Including a grasp of the differing perspectives of the issue. In this instance, institution leaders, faculty, and administrators don’t need to be experts in online learning, MOOCs or open education resources for example, but should be informed before engaging in discussions and decisions pertaining to changes in learning models or methods.

Fortunately, faculty documented experiences with MOOCs and online learning have come to light. For instance, a survey conducted for The Chronicle identified that faculty gained deeper insight into their own teaching and learning, and how online learning ‘works’. The majority of faculty claimed to benefit personally and professionally.

The demographics may explain the overwhelming positivity found among faculty members: 93.5 percent of instructors thought teaching a MOOC was beneficial to them personally or professionally, and 78.7 percent were likely to recommend teaching one to their colleagues.The Chronicle (2013)

Professor Karen Head of Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Literature, Media, and Communication, blogged about her teams’ experience developing and facilitating a MOOC, First-Year Composition 2.0.  Similar to other professors, her attitudes about MOOCs as a viable replacement for undergraduate education did not change, but the experience provided insight into her own teaching and learning.

“If we define success by the raw numbers, then I would probably say No, the course was not a success…However, if we define success by lessons learned in designing and presenting the course, I would say Yes, it was a success. From a pedagogical perspective, nobody on our team will ever approach course design in the same way. We are especially interested in integrating new technologies into our traditional classes for a more hybrid approach.” The Chronicle, 2013

Professor Duneier of Princeton taught one of the first courses on Coursera, Introduction to Sociology. Duneier openly shared his enthusiasm for MOOCs, writing an opinion piece after the completion of the courses’ first offering. However, he recently backed away from teaching his MOOC, due to the unfavorable contract terms between Coursera and higher ed institutions and its faculty. Duneier acted from an informed perspective, and his positional statement will no doubt influence the path and direction of MOOCs and online education within his own institution.

Princeton professor Mitchell Duneier told The Chronicle of Higher Education Tuesday that he will no longer teach his class out of concerns that it could undermine public higher education.  Duneier told the Chronicle that his Coursera class was “one of the greatest experiences of [his] career” and that he’d like to teach another MOOC at some point — but under the right circumstances.”  GIGA OM, 2013

And another perspective from Duke University’s Professor Starn:

“MOOCs are an exciting learning option, Starn said, noting, however, that it cannot compare to the value of a face-to-face lesson…Although his experience with MOOCs was mixed, Starn is choosing to teach the course again and is looking forward to it.”  Duke Chronicle, 2013

Conclusion – So Where do we go from here?
Higher education, especially in public institutions is complex—yet at the very least, stakeholders familiar with the current issues and events affecting higher education and their respective institution will benefit greatly—personally and as a voice in their institution. Imagine if all faculty, administrators, policy-makers, and board members participated in a MOOC or  online course as a student?

I close with this excerpt from Professor Head’s blog piece. She’s nailed it—”the positive conversation is just beginning“—will you be part of it?

“I’d like to close with this challenge: Please continue to think about the process and practice of teaching MOOCs as objectively as possible, using constructive academic discourse. We frequently hear this topic talked about in terms of “disruption,” a word I really disdain. I wonder how such a term—meaning disorder, turmoil, destruction —became the preferred way to talk about improving education. Why haven’t we gravitated instead to words like augment, extend, progress, or strengthen? Our MOOC has ended, but a larger, more positive conversation is just beginning.” 

Further Reading:

6 thoughts on “MOOCs as Non-Disruptors: So, Where Do we go From Here?

  1. laurawillson

    I welcome the accessibility of online courses. The online chat is also nice. There is no need to travel to a given point for a lecture or a tutorial or even an exam. It is very good for distance learning for those in remote areas and for the disabled.

    In my opinion, this method of teaching, is more suited to subjects such as philosophy, history, mathematics than it is to chemistry, engineering, clinical studies.

    Would I be happy to deal with a graduate of such a course? No I would not.

    Together with any bundle of knowledge one must have available as a graduate, are skills such as hand to eye co-ordination, empathy, communication skills, (both verbal and non verbal), personal values, ability to analyse from a given set of facts and ability general interaction with others in a competitive or co-operative environment in different surroundings. These cannot be learnt or assessed online.
    It is also hard to prove who is doing the chat and the exercises online.

    Certainly online courses make a lot of knowledge available to the user in a connected way be it in structured or linked course formats It does not in any way replace the campus experience, if that campus experience is of good quality. A great supplement to campus courses but not a substitute for such irrespective of the cheap mass delivery method once the costs of setting it up has been met.


  2. Pingback: Sebastian Thrun: MOOCs Not Effective for Undergraduate Education After All… | online learning insights

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  4. Rob Viens

    As an instructor of both online and on campus classes, I have been exposed to a lot of great teaching ideas by taking MOOCs (either casually or for a certificate). Granted I have also seen some bad ideas, too, but one can learn from those, as well.

    This format opens up the classrooms of thousands of instructors to their colleagues, creating a great potential for sharing teaching styles, resources, new ways to teach old ideas, etc. – something that was virtually impossible in a brick and mortar setting. And I have found that being a participant in MOOCs (especially a poorly designed one), has given me new insight on how to look at my own classes through the eyes of a student.

    Regardless of what people think of MOOCs as a teaching tool, these factors alone have the ability to make us all better at what we do.

    PS – Thanks for your blog – I enjoy reading your insights on online education.


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      Hi Rob,
      Thanks for sharing your experience as a student of a MOOC and its value! I agree — even poorly designed courses are instructive experiences for faculty and teachers.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, and for your kind words



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