MOOC myth busting


Online learning consultant Sam Burrough will be presenting a session on Massive Open Online Courses, MOOCS, are they just misunderstood?, at the Learning Technologies Conference and Exhibition 2015. Here he takes a look at some of the myths that surround the acronym. 

Let’s start with the acronym…

MOOCs have to be MASSIVE
They don’t have to be massive, massive is a relative term. The first one was a couple of thousand people, now it’s common to get 60,000 on a single course. The larger the course gets the harder it is to create a positive social learning experience.  The social aspect is just as important as the content. If you can create conversations around the content, people will think more deeply about the subject, even if they don’t choose to share their thoughts on the course.

"Looks like someone's living in the past....contemporise man."

“Looks like someone’s living in the past….contemporise man.”

MOOCs have to be OPEN to all
They don’t have to be open to the whole world. But they should retain a degree of openness. If you are running one internally, why limit the audience. If the technology is scalable, it makes no difference to you and it opens up opportunity to people who want to learn. How many leadership development programmes are open to all? Not just the selection process, the actual bit where you learn stuff. Very few if any (feel free to correct me in the comments). This means there is a selection process and that process will be rife with personal bias, both conscious and unconscious. What if your talent pipeline was fed through less biased data? Who made the most valuable contributions to the course? Whose comments where voted up the most times? Who was the most active participant? Who made people think?

Or you could just stick some arbitrary numbers in your nine box model.

MOOCs need to be ONLINE
Okay you’ve got me there. They do need to be online, but not exclusively. There is no reason why you can’t blend real world activity with the online experience. If you want people to actually put learning to work then this is an excellent approach, but it does make it harder to run a tight ship and keep the momentum going.

MOOCs have to follow a COURSE format
Well yes and no. Ask any sailor, a course has a beginning and an end. Logically, so do all MOOC experiences, but not necessarily the ones you design. People take what they want, give what they want and then leave, so don’t be disappointed when only a tiny percentage of people complete your course. They either got bored and voted with their feet, or they got what they wanted and moved on, or more likely they were too busy to do any more.

Drop out rates are a good measure of how successful a MOOC has been
To quote the Simpsons, “Looks like someone’s living in the past….contemporise man.” Why would a traditional measure of college or university courses be an appropriate way to measure the success of a modern online learning experience? Because the people who use that measure of success were told their existence was threatened by MOOCs. It’s a logical human response, but an illogical metric. MOOCs are an iteration on the path to more web-like learning experiences and should be measured accordingly.

If it’s not Massive and it’s not Open, it’s not a MOOC
Correct, but who cares. The MOOC movement has inspired, or at least signposted, a different kind of online learning. About bloody time. We’ve been pushing mediocre Elearning down the throats of our learners and organisations for more than a decade. Meanwhile they’ve all become accustomed to using the Internet to discover, connect and learn. However, we’ve done significant damage, we may even have institutionalised mediocre elearning. To the extent that when you suggest an alternative that isn’t a “CBT” (yes people are still using that term) it’s greeted with scepticism and fear.

MOOCs are not the finished product, there is no finished product. MOOCs have legitimised online social learning experiences and made them scalable. It’s up to all of us to start applying these lessons and move online learning forward.

[Picture credit: Simpson Crazy]


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  1. Bruce Cronquist on

    My previous group experimented with “MOOCs need to be ONLINE.” Company employees signed up for and took a MOOC class. We held weekly study groups and used company examples for the homework. Direct job applicability…what more could an adult learner ask for more?

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