On MOOCs And Course Quality

If you are involved in education, technology, or just have been alive in recent years you’ve likely heard of MOOCs. Some people hail them as the savior of higher ed. Some people say they’re a massive waste of resources. Then some other people teach a MOOC and make sweeping and ridiculous generalizations about online education. Guess which one this post is about?

This post has been a long time coming, but it was finally brought out of me in response to an article on dailycamera.com about MOOCs offered by CU Boulder.

Full disclosure I work, and have worked, in academic technology for my entire career. I am a strong supporter of online education, but I know that it isn’t a magical cure all. I also know, and mountains of research will agree with me (seriously Google it, it takes like 5 seconds,) that online education can be every bit as effective as face to face courses or better.

Why do I stress “or better”? Because there is a prevailing notion in education that online courses have to prove their quality (there are quality metrics and certifications by the boat load) but face to face courses are assumed to be good because that’s the way we’ve always done them. Even though there are studies that show lecturing is most often not the best way to teach, it’s the prevailing way classes are taught.

So let’s consider one of the examples from the article:

  1. Instructor teaches a classroom section of Physics by lecturing
  2. The same instructor teaches a MOOC that is as close as possible to the classroom version (recorded lectures)
  3. Students who complete either course have nearly identical grade distributions
  4. Instructor concludes MOOC was a failure


He arrived at this conclusion because only 2% of the students finished the MOOC. So even though the students that finished performed as well as his classroom students, it’s not an effective instructional modality because of the low completion rate.

BUT WAIT. If this was an experiment, as the instructor himself called it, didn’t he notice that his two sample populations were radically different, had different motivations, and received different rewards? Well call me a skeptic, but I’m pretty sure that makes this quote

“My conclusion is that online education works for about two percent of students, namely those who have this extraordinarily strong sense of dedication and self-discipline,” he said. “For them, online education works. For the vast majority, no.”

difficult to justify.

His classroom students are young men and women, socially pressured to go to college, who probably took on debt to be there, who receive credit for completing the course, and are taking the course on their way to receiving a diploma.

His MOOC students

“were generally older and most already had a bachelor’s degree — they were “lifelong learners” taking the course to gain knowledge.”

and received no credit and were not pursuing a degree. Doesn’t anyone think that’s relevant? Never mind that 2,720 students finished these MOOCs which is substantially more than were served by his classroom course with nearly equivalent performance.

I suppose he also thinks libraries are failures because we aren’t all inside pouring over the free learning materials. So to those of you who do go to libraries and learn something or teach yourself a skill or just enjoy the available knowledge as a hobby; tough shit. If it isn’t education sanctioned by a degree granting institution your learning is worthless!

Even with successful data staring them right in the face, people still dump on online courses because it’s in their interest for them to fail. This MOOC, now created and shown to be at least as good as the face to face course (which remember, may be awful but whatever…) is done now. It can continue to be offered with minimal facilitation as long as the material is accurate.

Over and over.

At a minimal cost.

To a substantially larger audience.

With the same outcomes.

That means you don’t need the talking head anymore. And higher education has a lot of heads that enjoy talking.