Some thoughts on MOOCs

I recently received an email forwarded by a friend from a local legislator asking us generally about how we saw MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) fitting into the future plans of the University of North Dakota. It was a pretty generic question asking if we imagined MOOCs to be the future of university education and what we’d need to get UND involved.

This got me thinking that maybe it would be a good idea to post some of my thoughts on MOOCs.

1. MOOCs are like the most advanced ocean liner. Right now, many MOOCs are just massive online lecture courses with some interactive components added on. They primarily disseminate information, typically in conjunction with a textbook and some online exercises. The size of the classes alone make the interaction between the faculty member and individual students difficult and this interaction is typically replaced with collaborative learning among the students themselves. While it is impressive that these classes with thousands of students can create productive learning environment, the course itself typically relies on the “sage on the stage” both to market the course and to communicate the information to the students. This is the lecture course at its most refined and modern form. It has little to do with the “flipped classrooms” and other student-centered approaches that have become increasingly common in debates about the future of university education. That’s why I see them as the most advanced ocean liners: the most refined model of an out dated mode of transport.

2. MOOCs may replace the textbook. One of the most interesting effects of a MOOC is whether they can replace textbooks. Traditionally, textbooks, like MOOCs, provide students with basic content and some basic skills. Just as we wouldn’t tell students to master a textbook and then award them credit – no matter how sophisticated a textbook is – a MOOC should not replace actual classroom instruction. The MOOC involves virtually no contact hours with actual faculty, but they do provide access to content in a dynamic way.

Textbooks are expensive and generally speaking boring. MOOCs, in comparison, are open and free and compete in an crowded market for attention. As a result, they tend of be exciting and interesting and designed to capture the attention of busy students and draw them in.

3. MOOCs do not come cheap. On the side of production, it’s clear that MOOCs require significant investments in not only content but also production. The best MOOCs have high production values, exciting graphics, and dynamic content. They have the support of graduate assistants, production crews, and – sometimes – colleagues in departments. The design phase involves significant technical expertise. 

Having created a large online course, I can also attest to massive amount of time necessary to craft content so it works well in an online environment. Creating exercises that intrigue students and draw them to interact with their peer and to delve more deeply into course material is not a simple task nor one easily streamlined. Significant upfront investment will be necessary to encourage faculty to create MOOCs.

Finally, MOOCs will require some infrastructure support. As high profile MOOC failures have shown, there needs to be technical support for the both the faculty member conducting the class and the students enrolled. I regularly receive 10-20 emails a week on technical and academic issues from students in a 120-150 person class. As class size increases to over 100, we should expect the number of emails to increase proportionately. This could put a tremendous strain on faculty time and the technical staff of a university without proper support.   

As result of the investments necessary to conduct a MOOC, major universities will continue to have a monopoly on their production, and I suspect that the most cash-strapped schools will remain consumers of MOOC content.

4. Reviewing the MOOC. I’m interested to see whether the academic community come to review MOOCs as they might a new textbook or monograph. Unlike a traditional classroom course that is open only to paying enrolled students, a MOOC is open to anyone who takes the time to enroll. Can we imagine MOOCs to be the foundation for the kind of dynamic digital scholarship that so many academics think is imminent? After all, MOOCs can be as focuses as the audience will endure, interactive, dynamic, public, and open. All these things are key elements in how many folks see the future of academic publishing.

5. The New Model MOOC. One of the key aspects of the MOOC revolution is determining was to make them sustainable. When I was toying with the idea of a introducing a MOOC program here at UND, I thought that the MOOC provided a remarkable platform for targeted advertising. Collaborating with business that would provide products either directly relevant to the class (like textbooks or related books) or of interest to people taking the course (like the history channel supporting a MOOC on a historical topic) might work for MOOCs with thousands of students. As far as I can understand, no MOOC platform has introduced targeted advertising, but I have no idea why not. While MOOCs will not draw the millions of viewers watching even the worst rated television broadcast, one might think that focus of the average MOOC participant would more than make up for that with higher than average click through rates. 

I am not convinced that MOOCs will revolutionize university level teaching, but they open up intriguing possibilities for how students and a broader audience engages academic and scholarly content. Best understood as a complement to the university classroom, the expenses and potential revenue streams stimulated by MOOCs should give universities space to innovate alongside their core mission. 


  1. “MOOCs may replace the textbook.” This is interesting. I wonder if MOOCs would be a higher-quality option. In my experience, textbooks are terrible (in addition to being absurdly expensive). They are often factually inaccurate, represent bizarre ideas as mainstream orthodoxy, and discourage students to think with and through materials. I’d be happy to jettison my textbook if I had a cheap, reliable option.


  2. Dimitri,

    Yeah, and MOOCs can be interactive and dynamic. The downside is that MOOCs tend to run on a schedule and if your course doesn’t line up with the MOOC schedule, it becomes difficult to integrate the content into the class.



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