June 23, 2017

Author(s): Dr. Robin Colson, Director, Research & Evaluation

I recently read, MOOCs, High Technology, & Higher Learning, by Robert Rhoads (2015). The book explains the cultural, social, and economic motivations that spurred the MOOC (Massive, Open, Online Course) movement and provides an overview of the various and diverse perspectives on the value and role of MOOCs (Rhoads, 2015) going on today. The book also provides a glimpse into the future of MOOCs. It is an interesting read for all stakeholders whose job it is to use online learning as a strategy to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of higher education today.

This is not a review of the book, per se; rather, it is an update on MOOCs in the higher education landscape.

First of all, a clarification of MOOCs. A MOOC is simply a variation on the basic, online course. Typically, MOOCs use the same structure and elements as online courses including pre-recorded lectures, slide presentations, and videos; some include online simulations and lab activities. As is true with all college courses, online and face-to-face, some are good and some are less so. The massive delivery and open aspects of the MOOC are what distinguishes it from more traditional online courses. When MOOCs first entered the online learning scene in 2008, they were in real time, led by an instructor who was delivering an actual credit-bearing class within a classroom to enrolled students, at the institution. Simultaneously, the class was also being broadcast to thousands of students all over the world who were not enrolled at the institution, had not paid for the course, and were receiving no course credit. These MOOCs also attempted to be interactive through tools such as online chats, discussion boards, and small learning communities.

The original MOOCs were also completely open, having originated as part of the open courseware movement of the early 2000s, with the goal of providing access to quality higher education content and materials to thousands of people worldwide, completely free of charge (Rhoads, 2015). The open designation not only allows students to take a course for free, it also frequently implies, under certain open or common licenses, instructors can re-use, revise, or re-mix a MOOC for their own teaching purposes. Creative Commons is an organization created to support the open movement, including information about licensing options (Creative Commons).

MOOCs first entered the online learning scene with much fanfare and excitement which continued to grow for a few years. The New York Times declared 2012 the “Year of the MOOC” with millions of experimental and philanthropic dollars being poured into them, universities jumping on the MOOC bandwagon, and the establishment of major MOOC providers such as edX, Coursera, and Udacity. Since that time, MOOCs have been celebrated and criticized. By 2013, the MOOC movement was cooling, especially in higher education. The 2014 Campus Computing Survey of information technology administrators found only 38% saw MOOCs as viable and only 19% saw MOOCs as potential revenue generators (Rhoads, 2015). By 2017, many people in higher education wonder, “What happened to MOOCs?”

Unfortunately, it is the MOOC’s distinguishing and egalitarian features, i.e., massive and open, that are responsible for its decline in higher education. As MOOCs grew in popularity, the level of interaction between faculty and student that was desired could not be maintained with only one faculty member. MOOC students also wanted to demonstrate their completion of the course, which implied some type of assessment and/or credentialing. Teaching assistants had to be included during the live delivery of each class, as well as afterward to administer chats and discussions and to grade activities and assessments. Without the ability to charge tuition, colleges and universities could not support these additional expenses for an ongoing basis.

In an attempt to make MOOCs more affordable, colleges and universities began offering them in an asynchronous mode, meaning they were no longer broadcasting a live lecture with real-time interactions, but a pre-recorded one. All activities and assessments were machine-graded. This approach had some benefits: it improved the ability of students in different time zones around the world to access the classes at their convenience and it helped to eliminate costs of additional instructors. On the other hand, it also eliminated real-time discussions and student questions and precluded the ability to administer higher-level assessments, often limiting assessments to tests of basic knowledge and simple application of concepts and rules.

These changes in MOOC delivery lead to some of the greatest objections to MOOCs, namely, that they are academically inferior. Opponents argue MOOCs only push out information with no opportunity for instructor-led discussion or feedback to questions; they argue there is no opportunity for student interaction or collaboration (Rhoads, 2015). These are the same objections that have been voiced against online learning, in general, for the past 20 years, and have repeatedly been disputed. Studies consistently show online learning to be as effective as classroom instruction. In fact, a recent meta-analysis of 45 studies comparing the effectiveness of online instruction with face-to-face instruction found, on average, online learners performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction (Means, Toyama, Murphy, & Baki, 2013). These findings echo a similar meta-analysis conducted in 2010 (U.S. DOE, 2010).

So why do the objections to online learning, in general, and MOOCs, in particular, persist?

The answer is MOOCs, like all other kinds of online learning (i.e., traditional, competency-based, digital), continue to be held to a higher standard than classroom instruction. And that simply isn’t right. Proponents of online learning should not have to continue to defend it. Instead, they should ask its opponents to produce studies that demonstrate the superiority of classroom instruction. In my opinion, as long as a lecture, delivered in a huge lecture hall to hundreds of students with little opportunity for interaction or feedback, is a common instructional method, then a massive, online delivery of that lecture should also be considered a viable form of instructional delivery. And, if an online course is being delivered asynchronously to hundreds of paying students who are not engaging in instructor interactions and are receiving minimal feedback, what would it hurt to open it up to a few thousand more students to tune into the course for free?

Please do not misunderstand: I am not advocating for poor instruction. I do not believe the standard large lecture format, with a machine-graded exam, is necessarily a great instructional method. But, if the mass lecture is good enough for classroom delivery, then it should also be good enough for asynchronous online delivery. In other words, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander and innovative instructional methods should not be required to demonstrate superior pedagogy simply because they are new – or online.

Another objection to MOOCs is they de-professionalize the role of faculty and take away faculty ownership of their courses. These are not valid objections. The reality is the faculty role will change when delivering a MOOC, but it does not compromise faculty ownership or expertise. Creating a MOOC takes no less preparation and professional effort than creating a traditional course. The faculty member must still, for example, develop course objectives; research and develop course lectures, examples, and other content; locate supporting resources such as journal articles, videos, and interesting case studies; and write assessment items. The main difference in the role of faculty who teach large online courses is, often, faculty are supported in their course development by instructional designers and technologists. These staff members assist faculty in organizing the course for optimum online navigation; identifying e-resources to support the course; creating rubrics for activities and assessments; incorporating the course into the learning management system (LMS); and helping faculty to make sure their courses adhere to quality principles the institution may use, such as the Quality Matters rubric or other such protocol.

To say the online delivery of a course takes away faculty ownership of the course is like saying the use of robotics during surgery takes away the surgeon’s ownership of the operation, which we know is not true. The use of various technologies during surgery changes the way surgeons deploy their skills, but it does not reduce the level of expertise the surgeon needs. The same is true for faculty members who use technology in the delivery of their courses.

If faculty are concerned about the open nature of the MOOC, there are licensing options available through (Creative Commons) that place various levels of restrictions and attribution requirements on the open designation. This ensures one person’s intellectual property cannot be misconstrued by another person as his or hers, or used by that person for financial gain.

The need to educate vast numbers of college students cost effectively is a reality that is not going away given the 35 million projected job openings between now and 2020 requiring postsecondary education, and the forecasted shortfall of 5 million prepared workers given current production rates (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2013). Also, the need for access to open information and education continues to be a challenge in many places in the world, especially in developing countries, and other places that deny education to certain populations. Given these facts, and the fact online learning has repeatedly been shown to be a cost-effective and viable method of instruction, I would encourage MOOC opponents to reconsider and embrace MOOCs as a valuable tool for delivering engaging, adaptive, open instruction to a growing and increasingly diverse population of students.


Hollands, F. M. & Tirthali, D. (2014). MOOCS: Expectations and Reality, Full Report. Retrieved Jun2 2, 2017, from http://cbcse.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/MOOCs_Expectations_and_Reality.pdf

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., & Bakia, M. (2013). The effectiveness of online and blended learning: A meta-analysis of the empirical literature. Teachers College Record, 115(3), 1-47.

Carnevale, A. P., Smith, N., & Strohl, J. (2013). Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020. Center on Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University.

Rhoads, R. A. (2015). MOOCS, high technology, and higher learning. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

U.S. Department of Education. (2010). Transforming American education: Learning powered by technology. National Education Technology Plan 2010. Washington, DC: Author.