MOOCs – the future?

 In eLearning

With the start of a new academic year in the northern hemisphere, massive open online courses (MOOCs) have once again taken their place in the learning and development headlines.

The news isn’t all good. For example, according to education researcher Katy Jordan, some courses see completion rates of just 13 per cent. Students and commentators report a lack of engagement with the material, and even incentives such as credits and completion certificates don’t seem to boost completion figures.

I’m disappointed because, like many others in the L&D world, I got excited about MOOCs. When they first came onto the scene in the late 2000s they sounded like an inspired way to make learning content available to huge numbers of people, many of whom wouldn’t otherwise have been able to access it.

Not all bad news

Some of the biggest names in education were behind the MOOC concept – Stanford University launched three open online courses in 2011 – and once entrepreneurs worked out how to commercialise them, MOOCs moved into the mainstream.

From a business perspective, it was great news that we could study all sorts of topics, from coding to commercial law, at our desks and during our commutes. All that new knowledge coming into the workplace: it sounded so exciting.

According to the Wall Street Journal, around six million people signed up to MOOCs in 2013. The same report showed that around 10 per cent of those students were from developing countries – great news for those who hoped MOOCs would bring education out of its ivory towers. It all sounded so positive.

So what happened? And what’s going to happen now?

The reality

Partly as an experiment, and partly because I love learning, I signed up for two MOOCs. My experiences were varied but seem to represent those of students whose views have been reported in the press – namely, I found the content interesting and benefitted from discussing it with other students – some of whom had perspectives very different from my own – and valued the expertise of the tutors, particularly those who gave me practical advice. However, I struggled to remain engaged with the courses as they progressed.

I persisted with one course – one that focused on practical skills – but dropped out of the other, which was one I’d signed up to out for personal interest.


A recent TechCrunch article pointed out that for many MOOC students, life simply gets in the way of learning. That was certainly my experience when I signed up for a course. With so much vying for my attention in the real world, joining a virtual group to study slipped down my priority list. And, as anyone who’s taken a class knows, once you’ve missed a session, it gets harder to go back.

Too new?

The newness of MOOCs is an opportunity and a threat. Nobody quite knows what to do with them. A 2014 ASTD found that 69 percent of employers surveyed had never heard of MOOCs. This meant they couldn’t assess their value in terms of recruitment or training.

I had the same thought as I worked through my MOOC. Should I put it on my CV, or would it look like something from a diploma mill? Would anyone take it seriously?

Where’s the teacher?

Despite all those dropouts, student numbers remain high. But there’s little connection between them, despite course providers offering various social-network-like group and ‘liking’ options. This undermines the whole peer-marking concept.

I was pleased to get comments on my work from other students, but given that I didn’t know anything about them, I couldn’t validate their views. And sometimes, the spelling, grammar and general tone of the comments made me consciously reject the feedback I was given.

What I really wanted was feedback from a trusted expert. I got this from my ‘vocational’ MOOC and put it to practical use. Ultimately this gave the course its value.

Study practicalities

Being in New Zealand has many benefits, but our isolated location can make it hard to be a MOOC student. It’s tough to immerse yourself in a topic when you may not get a response for 12 hours.

Next time I sign up, I’ll look out for fellow Kiwis and use the group options to set up local groups. What I might lose in multicultural perspectives I stand to gain from synchronous support.

Course length

The MOOC that worked best for me was short: it lasted just a month. It meant I could set aside time one evening a week for a month to build skills in a new technical area. When I next sign up for a MOOC, I’ll be looking for one that’s short and like the one I’ve mentioned above, offers me a obvious work-related benefit.

Research and development

MOOC leaders seem to agree with my thoughts. They’re the first to point out that the concept is one that’s very much in its  development phase. edX president Anant Agarwal told the Wall Street Journal, “We see that there are problems, and there are a number of things that can be done that have promise. We are not even close to the kinds of conclusions we want.”

I’ll be keeping a close eye on those MOOC-related headlines, and I’ll continue to use MOOCs to boost practical skills. In the short term, it looks as though some MOOC institutions will start to limit student numbers so as to be able to offer more tutor support. Commentators have also suggested that institutions will start to make courses easier to boost retention rates. It’s a brave new world, and one I want to be part of.

Coming soon

I recognise that my needs are very different from those of many other MOOC students. With so many of us, it’s by definition impossible for MOOC leaders to meet everyone’s needs. Perhaps it’s up to us to choose more wisely, resist the urge to sign up for MOOCs on a whim, and to focus our attention more fully to the courses we do take. I’ll look at these topics in a future post.

For now, I’d love to know your experiences of MOOCs. I regularly see tweets in my twitter feed saying my connections have signed up to new courses – so let me know how they’re going. Are you achieving what you hoped?

I’m also curious to know what recruiters and HR experts think of MOOCs. Do you want to see them on a CV? And would you consider setting up a corporate MOOC? Nigel Paine, author and learning guru, sees this as one way forward for MOOCs, as you can see in this video.

Do comment below or tweet @bloomrecruit with your thoughts.

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