The problem with the MOOC movement

This is the old “input” model of quality assessment at work. Instead, what is both essential for such an innovation and missing are the results of secure third-party testing using statistically valid instruments.

The fact that the outcome exam is prepared by an instructor from MIT is simply not sufficient to ensure the validity of the instrument, despite what one edX executive once told me.

Plus, when there is at least the potential for thousands of exam takers from around the world, there is a need to be concerned about both identity verification and instrument security.

Absent such validation, other indicators suggest MOOC offerings today are unique forms of entertainment rather than serious vehicles for the advancement of learning.

While the fostering of learning continues to be a concern with MOOCs, there are areas where potential benefits can be seen. A type of taxonomy for MOOCS might look like this:

Use Description
Continuing Professional Education The original and some think best application. Offerings in cutting edge topics help keep busy, educated, technical professionals current in their fields.
Faculty Reputation Building At a time when few books sell more than a 1,000 copies, displaying expertise and skills before tens of thousands can both further reputation internationally (since 70% of MOOC participants are abroad) and help build one’s tenure portfolio.
Build Institutional Brand With most universities having little name recognition outside of the U.S., MOOCs provide an opportunity to create awareness, and be seen on a stage with “super stars” (i.e. Stanford, MIT, Harvard), all while at least suggesting a level of tech savvy and commitment to open access to knowledge.
Marketing In a yet to be fully appreciated application, MOOCs allow an institution to preview a specific offering for free while simultaneously creating awareness showcasing instruction and program differentiation. Even with single digit completion rates, participants could represent thousands of pre-qualified prospects for on-going credential programs – at regular tuition.
R&D As MIT and Harvard have made clear from the start, edX is all about experimentation and the informing of instruction on campus and online. A sustainable business model has not been the objective (though one seems to be evolving in the form of fee for service to other institutions). The diffusion of innovation has certainly been a by-product.
Delivery of Instruction for Credit As already noted, this appears to be where MOOCs fall down. Certainly, their highly impersonal structure does not seem appropriate for traditional age students who may need more personal forms of attention/interaction. Older, more independent students may find value here but it is difficult to understand why they would choose a MOOC over the free courses available through Open Educational Resources and the Open Courseware initiative. Often created by the same big name institutions, OER courses are intended to support the learning needs of independent students. Additionally, when used in conjunction with credit-by-exam assessments, there are rarely questions about credit or its acceptability within degree programs.


As this taxonomy demonstrates, MOOCs have tremendous potential if we think about finding ways to hold student interest, provide better instructional design, improve interactivity, strengthen our faculty, and carry out meaningful assessments of outcomes.

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