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MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses or Massive and Often Obtuse Courses?

By Lisa Chamberlin, Tracy Parish / August 2011

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MOOC, the acronym alone can make a learner instantly smile with the remembered joy of online learning camaraderie, or shudder at the memory of a massive and often obtuse course. This article isn't a review of any particular massive open online course, as they are all quite different—each iteration tends to evolve from the previous one. Rather, this article offers the first-person perspective of two learners and their experiences with different MOOCs.

What is a MOOC?

Dave Cormier, a recognized leader of the MOOC movement, defines these unique learning opportunities as:

An online phenomenon gathering momentum over the past few years, a MOOC integrates the connectivity of social networking, the facilitation of an acknowledged expert in a ?eld of study, and a collection of freely accessible online resources. [1]

While these courses are free to take, learners may sometimes pay an institution to receive credit. Usually, all the work within the course is shared with everyone else: readings, discussions, repurposing of material, etc. The idea is that the more you engage within the course, with other participants, and with the distributed content, the more you will learn. One of the biggest gains from participating in a MOOC is the network of connections formed between all the elements that make up the course.

Most MOOCs to date have revolved around educational technology or learning theory topics. As new facilitators take the challenge of developing their own MOOCs, the subject matter is broadening. It is a bit like the wild frontier with MOOCs requiring the facilitator and learners to be early adopters, researchers, as well as self-directed. The very structure of MOOCs is rapidly evolving as facilitators learn from each iteration, methods used by other facilitators, and feedback provided by the participants.

The Student's Perspective

We have both experienced various courses presented as MOOCs. Our backgrounds are quite different and we had different goals for taking the courses from the outset. Suffice it to say we have had different results as well

Since MOOCs aren't for every learner, we have provided both sides of the story around some common components of most MOOCs. To provide the reader a participant's point of view of MOOCs, our collective interpretations (along with impressions shared with us by others) are encapsulated below.

Participation is open to anyone�

Pro: Not only is it amazing to find out how many people can participate in a course at the same time, but also who participates. In our MOOC experiences there have been many participants from around the globe. A student in a local college class a student might interact with classmates living in the same city, while most online courses are primarily filled with regionally-based students. In a MOOC, however, learners get to hear from a global voice.

It isn't necessary to follow all the participants (sometimes numbering in the thousands) to develop a good understanding of the topic. Learners only need to closely connect with perhaps 30 to 40 other participants. It's important, though, to follow a diverse cross-section to tap into as many different points of view as possible.

Con: The number of people in a course can be overwhelming! How does someone connect with 2000-plus people? How does a learner even begin to make sense of all those voices adding commentary, questions, and posts? How does a learner get instructor feedback in this kind of a situation? It is impossible for an instructor to interact with even 1/10th of the class or even manage to address 1/10th of what is posted. The size of the MOOC size, while impressive, might work against the "connectedness" the facilitators and participants often seek.

Distributed learning�

Pro: Gathering and sharing our own learning material was interesting and proved more informative than some of the course-related material provided by the instructors, which was often high level and cumbersome to work through. But if one chooses to follow the instructor's plan, participants help each other interpret the material, seek out different or related sources, and use social networking to share their interpretations. Through this distributed learning, participants gain a better understanding of the dense instructor material. As the MOOC evolves, learners are able to build on the knowledge established in the previous iteration—ever expanding the knowledge base and interpretations.

Con: We often found navigating the MOOC waters frustrating. Once we got started it was not difficult to find the course material and a few other participants, but where was everything else? There didn't seem to be any discussion happening in one easily-accessible place. Why should content have to be so difficult to find? If you don't user Twitter, you can miss a vital discussion thread. Facebook groups or Google groups exist, but if you join the wrong one you could be one of 10 voices instead of one of 1700 participants. That's a lot of missed connections.

Synchronous forums—hosted during the run of the MOOC—are also prone to limited participation, while many blog posts lack comments. The problems with architecture and tools often subvert the promise of "connectedness" that MOOCs should provide.

Another concern lies with existing material. As fellow participants we question the value of simply retrieving old information from previous versions of a course. Since some participants are simply using the labor of previous learners to clarify difficult topics, are current learners getting as much out of the topic as they should?

The credit vs. no credit wall�

Pro: Access to a MOOC is free, but if one chooses to take the course for credit the administering institution can charge a fee. Earning educational credits requires a few extra assignments, but we felt they weren't any more difficult than what is found in any typical online course. Having to invest more effort into completing the course for credit actually helped our own participation. Not only can this improve understanding of the topic, but it also helps expand the knowledge-base of the course. With access to private webinars and other course meetings not available to non-paying participants, those earning credits have better opportunity to develop stronger connections with other learners.

Con: Although MOOCs are heralded for being open and free, those who choose to pay are at a greater advantage. Credit-receiving students are offered meetings and activities with the facilitator, which non-credit learners are excluded from. Payment should offer some benefits, but a natural division can occur within the larger group. Credit-earning students seem connected in a way that the rest are not. To exclude some in a course specifically advertised as "open" seems contrary to the MOOC philosophy.


Pro: Participating in a MOOC for credit, in our experience, makes a learner more committed. As past "free" MOOC dropouts, by signing up for credit we were more invested in the course. Like any other online course, a participant won't get anything out of the course unless they are committed to finding and participating in interesting conversations—whether it is a discussion board or comment thread. The material is helpful, but the give-and-take in the discussion is where the real learning happens. Being committed to the course makes a huge difference.

Con: MOOC learners already struggle with feeling connected because of the distributed style of information and discussions. Having no employment or financial commitment to the courses makes it even more difficult to actively participate. Or, rather, the lack of incentives makes it too easy to not show up. If the content and community doesn't pique or hold learner interest, they will not fully engage in the course and worse may end up deserting before it is over.


Pro: In our experience, the facilitation for many MOOCs surpasses traditional online college coursework. Most of the MOOCs have weekly synchronous forums. In our conversations with other MOOC participants, those with extensive online credits reported having very few, if any, previous exposure to synchronous chats. Most MOOCs include a guest presenter or two, and other "live" events like weekly recaps, Q&A sessions, or project help sessions. These synchronous activities are a great way to sum up subtopics, ask questions, and share resources. Students are able to use the chat feature while the facilitator talks, and also interact with each other as well. This feels more like a face-to-face class experience and makes for a great learning experience.

Con: With so many participants, it is difficult for the lost or struggling learner to directly interact with facilitators (or be seen, even). To be fair, there is a facilitator setting up the site, releasing instructor content weekly, and occasionally participating in synchronous webinars. However a MOOC can be reminiscent of an undergraduate lecture hall with the faceless student in a sea of many. It is also difficult to interact with the guest speakers, making the experience similar to listening to a podcast. Although they usually speak on interesting topics, the chats are rapid and filled with so many voices at one time that there isn't a viable way to ask a question and get it answered.


The jury is still out on the effectiveness of MOOCs for learning and the existing research presents some interesting paradoxes. In fact, a much more intensive research study is planned for the fall using a MOOC to form an international research group looking into the effectiveness of MOOCs themselves.

The course style has a vocal contingent of support—namely those who've blogged and tweeted their way through the various courses. MOOCs have its detractors (albeit much less vocal) in the form of extremely high dropout rates. Yet there are those who fall somewhere in the middle, feeling the methodology may work for more independent learners but may be too extreme for less prepared learners. That debate is currently ongoing.

As with most things in teaching and learning, a MOOC is probably best thought of as another for individuals looking to acquire knowledge. Although not every instructor will want to teach one, and not every learner will want to participate in one, the value of a learning tool is in the mind of the learner.

More Information

"What is a MOOC?" is Dave Cormier's excellent video explanation of a MOOC, which can be found on YouTube.

Some of the current MOOCs being promoted or recently completed are listed below. Since these are open and Creative Commons licensed courses, the resources remain available for independent learners or future facilitators to use.

Change: Education, Learning, and Technology
Connectivism and Connected Knowedge (#CCK11)
Digital Storytelling (#ds106)
Experience U
Learning and Knowledge Analytics (#LAK11)
MobiMOOC (#mobiMOOC)
Online Learning Today and Tomorrow (#eduMOOC 2011)
Social Media and Open Education (#eci831)

About the Author

Lisa Chamberlin, (chambo_online on Twitter), M.Ed, holds a master's degree in curriculum and instruction, with an emphasis in technology, and is a freelance instructional designer and adjunct online facilitator for several higher education institutions. She writes about elearning, social media, and instructional design.

Tracy Parish, (Tracy_Parish on Twitter) has been working in organization development at Southlake Regional Health Centre for 10 years. A diverse educational background of accounting, computer programming, and adult educational training has led her to pursue designing and delivering online training at Southlake. After implementing the hospital's LMS, she is now creating and populating it with a catalog of elearning courses. The near future will see increased collaboration with hospital educators to increase this collection of online material.


1. Alexander McAuley, Bonnie Stewart, George Siemens and Dave Cormie."The MOOC Model for Digital Practice."


  • Tue, 23 Aug 2011
    Post by Apostolos K.

    I agree with Rebecca that you get out of a MOOC what you put into it; however at the same time the facilitator can improve the course flow (or better facilitate your access if you will - no pun intended) so that it is easier for everyone to participate and get something out of the MOOC. WIthout proper guidance, a course that is poorly designed, no matter if it's online, face-to-face or a MOOC, it will fail.

  • Thu, 18 Aug 2011
    Post by Tracy Parish

    You make a great point at the end Fran that this from of "course" may just not yet be ready for the masses (no pun intended).

    What is good is that several of these courses are being changed year after year. The feedback from participants is being listen to by instructors/facilitators and they are taking it to heart so as to improve each year. Many of us that have been participating in MOOCs for the last few years can feel good knowing that we are improving the experience for those that come after us.

  • Sun, 14 Aug 2011
    Post by Fran Lo

    I agree that you get what you put into it, but in a recent MOOC I tried to participate in, I found:

    1. baffling discussions spread in many different places, with little guidance about who was involved where, or why the discussions were all over the place (I think it was because learners set them up themselves).

    2. "live" synchronous presentations were audio panel discussions with a few experts droning but no visuals - at all - and no apparent interactivity. No idea why these were "live."

    3. hard to find materials, again spread across random web tools with no road map and links that didn't work.

    There was a lot of enthusiasm around, but interactivity was limited to the hundreds of learners, in random places.

    I've taken a lot of online courses and never had to struggle so hard.

    I don't think it's ready for prime time just yet.

  • Sat, 06 Aug 2011
    Post by Rebecca

    I think it can be said of all online course, and even face-to-face - you get what you put in to it. If you make an effort in MOOCs, you will make connections and learn, but if you don't you are apt to find the experience frustrating or at least not particularly rewarding. The same is true for any formalized course - if you don't put effort into it, you get little out of it.