What we can learn from the MOOC experiment

Whether you’re a fan or a critic of the MOOC experience, there are many lessons we can take from these massive open online courses

online-assessments-MOOC“Beyond the MOOC: The return.” That wouldn’t be the worst movie title ever, right?

MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, were the talk of the town in 2012-13. A lot of people heralded the giant eLearning experiences as the tool that would save education, while a lot of others expressed vitriolic hatred for “watered-down” education, and the like.

Last month, I wrote an article suggesting that whether you love them or hate them, whether you feel they are dead in the water or getting ready to finally unleash something incredible, there are some important things to learn from the concept. I argued that educators should try to tap into the lessons learned from the MOOC story, like practical learning, contextual learning, better guidance, architecting social learning, and educating at scale.

But the lessons should not end there. Those are simply five elements of (likely) dozens that should be deconstructed and looked at for merit, efficiency, or success. As one educator wrote to me, let us continue the “autopsy” and look for a few more hidden clues.


A lot of people were quite passionate in their response to my previous article. One commenter was a bit frustrated that I was pointing out some flaws, as he or she had some great MOOC experiences. Meanwhile, others posted comments about horrible experiences they’ve had with the huge classes. But this divergence matters.

(Next page: Analyzing MOOCs)

It matters because people are different. As Carol Dweck points out so effectively in Mindset, intrinsic motivation trumps extrinsic motivation … always. Yet, we know that what motivates one person does not necessarily motivate another. While individualized learning is the ultimate goal, in the interim, we need to improve our ability to provide effective instruction that can motivate smaller groups of students. The MOOC conversation highlights the need for this.

People often point to the 5-percent completion rate as a failure of the MOOC, but that is more of a metric of traditional education placed onto a context for which it might not be appropriate. MOOC success actually might be a much higher number. After all, research suggested there were people who found their MOOC experiences to be successful, even if they did not get to the end of the class. Success rates might actually have been 20 to 25 percent. If that reasoning is sound enough, then what is the number that makes this kind of experience worthwhile?

Is one out of four or five students enough to start changing what we do in education? In other words, if we created five different modalities for our students (as opposed to the one modality we typically force all students to use today), would they be more successful?


As alluded to above, completion of a MOOC course wasn’t the primary concern for a lot of students.  After all, a number of MOOC attendees got exactly what they wanted out of the MOOC via the content in Week Four or Module Three. Then, they went on their merry way. This suggests some real power in chunking materials appropriately, doesn’t it?

Imagine a module or week of content that is so powerful, thousands of students would dedicate their time and energy just to that topic. Of course, this also starts to suggest the need to create 16 weeks of “greatness,” but that isn’t necessarily the point. Chunking materials can start to speak to different students at different times in different ways. We just have to pay attention to the best chunks along the way and ensure they are ultra-consumable in different fashions.


I’ve seen a debate during my lifetime regarding how to approach time and learning. If we were to express these in terms of an equation, it might look something like this: Learning equals the time necessary to encode, repetition enough to remember, and motivation enough to do both.

To that end, intensity (often used synonymously with rigor, although rigor is likely much broader) has been experimented with throughout education. Think about it: We all know the traditional 16-week semester model. Likewise, we all probably know of a school still using 10-week quarters.

But what about faster modules of study? What about four-week terms used by some schools? What about three-week terms, where students study only two subjects—one in the afternoon and one in the morning? What about a two-and-a-half-week term, where a single subject is all that you study? These are all methods and models used by highly respected schools around the country. It only makes sense that MOOCs showed us how short bursts of intense learning really should have a place in our educational ecosystem. Neuroscientists likely would argue that a planned program of intense bursts with individualized reminders actually might be what we’ve all been looking for anyway.


I hope you can see that there is much to learn from MOOCs. Maybe it’s simply better to say that we should learn from all “alternative” education models. Why wouldn’t we cherry pick the best parts of the best education models and use these? After all, it’s what we do in almost every other facet of life.

Jeff Borden, Ph.D., is vice president of Instruction & Academic Strategy at Pearson and director for the Center for eLearning.

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