Sunday, March 3, 2013

What are the advantages of MOOCs?

"We had MOOCs back in my day.  They were called 'books.'"

A recent visiting speaker at Trinity University said the above to me.  And to first order, it's true.  Until very recently, if you were motivated to learn a subject on your own, you turned to books.  Books are self-pacing, portable, and adjust to your time schedule.  And in the infancy of MOOCs, you can find a greater variety of approaches and skill levels in books for just about any subject.  So what advantages do MOOCs offer at the moment?  I'm listing these from least to most persausive, in my opinion.

Some People Learn Better By Listening -- I've heard this in the past, but the two times I've mentioned it to psychology faculty, they've bitten my head off.

Technology Makes Everything More Fun -- In "The Simpsons," Bart won't do yard work, but will wait in line to play with the Yard Work Simulator.  I can see the same idea working here, but surely the shine would wear off after several weeks of work.

Interaction With Instructor -- Message boards should allow you to get questions answered directly by the instructor or teaching assistants.  Unfortunately the signal-to-noise in the classes I've observed has been horrible, with a couple of students turning the boards into their personal blogs.  (Digression:  Is this a science-specific issue?  Do the humanities have an equivalent to the "Einstein is WRONG!!" stereotype?  Do they get regular, mammoth letters outlining how Shakespeare's plays could be decoded to reveal their authorship by a Belgian farmer predicting the end of the world?)

Feedback -- My favorite feature of MOOCs so far has been end-of-video quizzes, which help cement the ideas you've just learned and explain the right answers when you choose incorrectly.  Books typically do a lousy job of this.  If they have exercises, often they put a subset of answers in the back with no explanation.  But there's nothing about the platform of books that prevents them from having this feature.

Multimedia -- Now we're getting somewhere.  MOOCs can supplement their instruction with sound, video, and animation, such as in The Mechanical Universe, probably the best example of this I've ever seen.  But this content takes a lot of effort to create, and the course in which I am now enrolled uses almost none.  And as I mentioned in my last post, I haven't come upon a concept yet where I felt I needed such visual cues to understand it.

Reward Structure -- People are more motivated when there is a reward at the end, especially one more tangible than self-improvement.  A friend of mine is participating in a weight-loss program wherein you pay money, and get double the money back if reach a target weight in a certain time frame.  Even though he knew the benefits of losing weight, he told me he didn't think he could do it without the added incentive of having money on the line.  As it pertains to MOOCs, I am astounded at how much emotional investment people place in their completion certificates.  My course is two weeks behind due to the instructor's illness.  He still intends to end the course officially on March 11th, but will post all the delayed content after that date so people don't miss anything.  The boards are rife with complaints that they would rather work faster and complete it all by the 11th so that their certificates mean more.  Um...they don't mean anything now.

Activation Energy -- With books, you have to search for the right one, and either plunk down some money on Amazon or drive to your local library.  Not exactly an impulse buy.  But with MOOCs, if I were to page through the Coursera offerings and find something that I liked, I could sign up right now.  No cost, no investment, and nobody looking over my shoulder if I decide it's not right for me and drop it later.  And since I have the course open in another window...
Multitasking -- I could listen to the content while I finished this blog post.  And that is what prompted the quote that began this post; the speaker's daughter was enrolled in MOOCs, and would listen to them while writing emails or checking Facebook, but always while her attention was divided.  Can't really do that with a book.

So what this stream-of-consciousness has led me to is the following:  while there are several potential advantages to MOOCs, as currently constructed they can encourage bad study habits.  It's too easy to think we're learning when we're not, because our mind is elsewhere.  If we become too sorely challenged, we can drop the course and move onto the next one, because what has been lost?

Professor Stonedahl mentioned a couple of his bad habits in the previous post, so let me add my own.  I am really enjoying Galaxies and Cosmology, and have been filling a lot of holes in my astronomy knowledge.  But I worry about whether I will remember much of it once the course ends.  Right now I find it easiest to complete the course by setting aside a 2-hour block once a week, devouring a week's worth of videos in rapid succession, and then taking the weekly quiz (one attempt only in this course) while the information is fresh in my mind.  It's working; I haven't scored below 90% yet, though there are some lucky guesses in there.   But is this the best way to store this knowledge in my long-term memory?  Already I feel like the early chapters are slipping away.

The point -- when we teach face-to-face, we discuss study habits with our students all the time.  Read the material before you come to class.  Don't start the homework at the last minute, but spread it out so that you are reviewing concepts more regularly.  Learn through practice.  In MOOCs, where we don't have as direct an interaction with our students, we need to think how to structure them to make bad habits harder to form in the first place.


  1. I really enjoyed this post, and the way it laid things out. I suspect there are a few potential benefits of MOOCs over books missing from the list (e.g., the possibility of interacting with a far-flung diverse global classroom), but it seems like you covered some important ones.

    It's also worth noting that there are a number of books incorporating interactive features now (e.g., ).

    With regard to you last point -- although I strive to encourage good study habits among my students, there is always a segment that continually starts homework/projects near the deadline, etc. While some may learn better study habits throughout college, I'm not sure that everyone does.

    I do think the ease of dropping MOOC courses may be problematic. In a traditional college setting, once the drop-add deadline passes, students are somewhat "trapped" in a course. No doubt this can be a bad thing sometimes, but sometimes it requires the student to buckle down and prove (to themselves? to the world?) that they can accomplish something that they didn't realize that they could. Then again, maybe it will just allow students to find a good personalized education path in a much more efficient manner, since they can sample so many courses in a short amount of time.

  2. Great post, Dennis. I'm currently working through a fascinating (and challenging) Physiology course, and it has been very difficult to fold it into my life for exactly the reasons that you mention. And one would think that a college professor would have good study skills. Last month, Claudia shared a link to a study which found that "virtually every group of students fared less well (defined by the number of course credits they completed, and/or by their grades) in online courses than they did in on-ground classes." (See:

    There are many problems with using course credits and grades as the sole metrics of academic accomplishment -- and Mark Lewis raises a good point about the value of lurking without completing -- but this data (combined with my personal experience) does make me wonder about how useful a MOOC-only curriculum would be for students who are just starting out.