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MOOCs: Effective Instruction or Pedagogical Disaster?

The last few years have seen a tremendous surge of interest in Massive Open Online Courses(MOOCs). Just last month, Harvard and MIT jointly published a large research study examining the trends emerging from MOOCs their universities offered in the last two years.

Here is a breakdown of their key findings:

Growth is steady. For the past two years, course enrollments have grown by 2,200 participants per day. Overall, there were over a million unique course participants in all courses during the timeframe of the study.

Participation waxes and wanes in courses that offer repeated versions. In the second version of a course, participation typically dips about 43%, but tends to re-stabilize itself for the third version.

Many of the learners are teachers who want certification. Approximately 20% of MOOC participants are teachers, and 57% of participants aim to earn a certificate from the course. (Note that aim and achievement are different: only 24% of participants who want a certificate actually earn one.)

Computer Science is the most popular topic area. There are almost four times more participants in this area than in any of the others (including Engineering, History, Humanities, Government, and others).

Learners are beginning to develop their own curricular pathways. User analytics reveal that there are common sequencing patterns among the Computer Science and Chinese History courses in particular.

Learners who pay to “ID-Verify” their certificates are far more likely to certify. Fifty-nine percent of verified students complete a certificate, while only 5% of non-verified users do. Most of the verified students are older, more educated, and live in the United States.

The findings of the study seem to indicate that while interest in free online education options is not in danger of fading, there is a growing demand for rigorous academic subjects with certification options. And the benefits of massive open online courses are plain to see: they expand educational opportunities to a limitless audience (well, at least to those who have access to an internet connection), allow students to pursue a broader range of topics, and offer an easy “opt out” process if learners realize they don’t want to pursue the course any further.

One question the study does not tackle is whether MOOCs are actually effective. In fact, few researchers are willing to fully examine this question. An article in Time says that the expectations many learners have from MOOCs might far outweigh the courses’ ability to deliver. At the same time, the process is almost too casual: most MOOC participants consider the experience to be like “borrowing a book from the library and browsing it casually or returning it unread.” (If you’re an instructional designer, this statement probably made your blood pressure skyrocket.)

Many chalk the lack of student dedication up to the courses’ casual structure: learners don’t pay tuition, meet admissions requirements, or earn credit toward a degree. There’s also the problem of a lack of engagement: most MOOCs are designed to handle a hefty student load, offering instructor videos and readings as the main educational content and using algorithm-based scoring tools for assessments. In short, there’s no interaction between instructor and student, a relationship that can be a major motivator in learning.

But others say that the MOOC format doesn’t actually stray that far from traditional university courses, where professors deliver lectures to large auditoriums and anonymous TAs score exams. One study (also done by researchers at Harvard and MIT), which looked specifically at one Introductory Physics MOOC, claims that students who participated in the online version did just as well academically as those who completed an on-campus version.

What do you think: Are MOOCs an effective mode of instruction, or are they a passing fad?

For more infomation on online learning, check out these blog posts:

Letting Learners Choose Their Own Path

Digital Badges: Do They Help or Hurt Your Online Reputation?

Online or Blended: Which is Better?