MOOC it for what it’s worth

For a moment MOOCs epitomised how ‘extremely online’ technology could transform education. But while Massive Open Online Courses still exist there’s a chill in the air towards them due to their limitations.

Not my desk, not my laptop, may not be the MOOC for me.

Big Time

They aren’t called Massive for nothing. Students enrolled in a MOOC can number in the thousands. The first MOOC I began made the mistake of setting up an automated email alert for every thread comment. It was catastrophic. Students were deluged with thousands of emails with no ability to switch off notifications. Participant complaints created more emails. I ended up withdrawing within two days. The system too big to fail was too big to use.

Open wide, come inside

Open means anyone can enrol. I like this. You can live anywhere, be anyone and learn something if you have an Internet connection, time, and some kind of device. You get to interact with a global cohort of students, bringing multiple perspectives to topics presented by academics backed by resources from prestigious universities. On the other hand, people who are functionally illiterate submit fiction for critique in writing classes. The word optimism comes to mind.

While there are moderators often there are no minimum standards for student contributions. Some thread discussion comments read like word salad, and others are valueless in terms of topic discussions, as they exist only to collect ‘points’ towards course completion. Thus, multiple and repeated entries of ‘great’ on a thread do not a thread make. The problem is twofold: it’s distracting for students who are properly engaged, and frustrating that students whose only contribution is ‘great’ to every conversation maybe as recognised for completing the course as those who actually interacted with others.

Regarding recognition: a MOOC is not a degree. It’s hard to know how they are valued by others, except they demonstrate the determination to learn and time management.

Intentions on the line

Online means anywhere you can get a connection, but also at your own pace, whenever you feel like it, or can squeeze in a few minutes. It means the MOOC is not the priority, it gets forgotten, shelved, and good intentions can result in very little at all. Since it’s free, with loose deadlines, the impetus to keep going amid all the other things in your life quickly fades. You are not wasting money if you can’t complete it. Enthusiasm can die further if the quality of student interactions is at the level of monosyllabic responses to complex questions.


This is not my beautiful desk. This is not my beautiful life. How did this get here?

Horses for courses

MOOCs are subjects, but MOOS are bovine. Nothing wrong with cattle, but courses to me consist of many subjects arranged in an order that builds knowledge progressively. All the MOOCs I’ve ever evinced interest in have been individual subjects focused on one area of interest, like some aspect of ancient history. I’m free to jigsaw them into my own order for a bespoke course, but it will still consist of individual subjects. Hence MOOS.

Getting specific 

A MOOC is not simply a matter of you get back what you put in, because what you or I invest will not make up for bad design or poor quality engagement from others. But if you know what you want, and find the right MOOC, (and its designed well, and more people engage in good faith than don’t,) then it’s worth it. A good MOOC will provide interesting or otherwise difficult to find resources to absorb, and insights into the topic, while other participants will lead to useful conversations. At least this has been my experience with the University of Iowa’s Moving the Margins: Fiction and Inclusion MOOC. During this class I’ve come across writers I’ve not heard of, read intriguing published stories, critiqued the work of students, discovered questions I need to answer, and for my purposes, received helpful comments on my own work.  One story I wrote a decade ago and has never been accepted has come along to the point I’ve submitted it again. For that alone this MOOC was worth the effort.

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