A Report Card for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC)

The Frat Party of the Future.

The Frat Party of the Future.

By Jessica Rogers, {grow} Contributing Columnist

Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, have been hotly debated by the media in recent years. Although many are free and promise to bring an Ivy League education to the masses, these open-source college courses often suffer from massive dropout rates and organizational problems.

After deciding to take a break from my doctoral studies about a year ago,  I enrolled in some of these courses for some inspiration to guide my dissertation work. The low, often nonexistent, cost of these courses and quick pace (6-8 weeks) was appealing, and I was able to cherry-pick courses from prestigious schools like Northwestern, Princeton, and Duke, among others.

Most MOOCs do not offer college credit (though some do offer “signature track” selections that offer a Verified Certificate for a small fee), but I found a wide variety of offerings in Business, Higher Education, Social Media, and Marketing coursework. I was interested to see how these universities would adapt their curriculum to this new format, and whether or not professors and students would flourish in this environment. I currently teach all of my university courses online, so I find it valuable to to see how other instructors and schools present material and design courses.

My MOOC was a Mess

The first MOOC was a disaster. There were 41,000 students in my class, offered by Georgia Tech — all of them trying to ask questions, deleting content, and flooding the discussion forums.

The course layout and materials were difficult to navigate, the content was lackluster, and the system was fraught with technical problems. By day six, the chaos forced an overwhelmed instructor to suspend the course, and we were left wondering when it would be offered again (it has not been, as of this writing).

Several students blogged about this course and the mishap was covered by the Washington Post, Slate, and Inside Higher Ed, to name a few. Ironically, the course was titled, “The Fundamentals of Online Learning.”

I’ve since gone on to take online classes from Princeton, Northwestern, and Duke, and I graded the experience as follows:

Course Selections :  B

There are several major MOOC providers (Coursera, Udacity, edX, among others) that partner with various universities to deliver their course content on the web, and each one structures and presents this material differently. While I didn’t find many choices that I felt would be comparable to an upper-level or graduate-level course at a major university (most of these feel like first year, undergraduate-type courses), I found quite a few interesting offerings on very specific, niche topics. I took classes like “Understanding the Media by Understanding Google,” and “Content Strategy for Professionals, ” for example, both offered by Northwestern University.

Professors :  B

The Georgia Tech course was obviously a flop, but aside from the technical woes that ground the course to a halt, I still had the sense that the professor was knowledgeable and credible. Both of the courses I took from Northwestern were guided by professors with impressive CV’s and featured well-produced, enjoyable video content. Some classes featured multiple professors, and the courses from Princeton even offered tech support and lecture notes from graduate assistants.

Content :  C

The courses I took were only 8 weeks long, and that didn’t really seem like enough time for an in-depth study of the topics. I would have expected more robust content offerings, considering the prestigious reputation of some these universities. While the videos were well produced (no webcams used), I assumed the assets would have been a little more technically advanced than the classes I teach. They weren’t.

Interaction With Other Students :  B

While one might hope that this type of system could facilitate more discussion between fellow students and professors, I felt many students were only pursuing the courses to acquire connections rather than skills. Many of the classes are built around discussion boards that, when class sizes balloon above 40,000, become cacophonous and impractical. Many of these classes depended too heavily on peer learning, which became a cluttered mess.

Interaction With Professors :  F

Besides connecting with professors on LinkedIn, I had no other interaction with them– not even on discussion boards.

Level of Difficulty : D

The courses were not difficult. However, a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education found  that only about half of the students ever viewed a lecture, and only 4 percent completed the courses, an indictment of the effectiveness of this mode of learning. Additionally, a San Jose State University MOOC experiment is being called a “flop” by the New York Times. The school offered three intro level (for college credit ) courses via Udacity.  MOOC students did far worse than those who took the classes on campus. In one course, only 12 percent earned a passing grade.

Assignments : B

Assignments included multiple-choice quizzes, case studies, and written assignments, many of these graded by peers. I’m hesitant to award a good grade here, as I’m not a fan of peer graded activity. Most of these peer-graded activities provided me with little to no feedback, and were often just a score.

Would I Take More?

Maybe you’ve never taken an online course before and want to get your feet wet, or are thinking of returning to school after a long time– maybe you, like me, just like to learn. There are many classes that provide Verified Certificates that could be helpful in many industries. Is it comparable to a college degree? Probably not. But this could be a cost-effective way for some people to differentiate themselves, especially in a workforce where a traditional degree isn’t necessary. MOOCs could be an option for professional development, or an inexpensive way to prepare for college testing.

On the whole, I found these classes to be condensed, slightly dumbed-down versions of traditional university courses. I won’t say they are irrelevant, but they have a ways to go before replacing more conventional college curriculum.

What have your experiences been? Do you see businesses utilizing MOOCs for professional development instead of more expensive university offerings? Will businesses really benefit in the end from this condensed curriculum, as opposed to a University certification program?

jessica rogersJessica Rogers is a Dallas-based Adjunct Marketing Instructor at Texas A&M University- Commerce and faculty member at Southern New Hampshire University. She is currently working on her PhD in Business with an emphasis on Marketing; her dissertation research is focused on Social Media. Follow her on Twitter and her blog

Top Image Credit: Veisto, adapted via Flickr cc

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