RE: What’s up with MOOCs?

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RE: What’s up with MOOCs?

On December 20, 2013, Posted by , in Critique, Education, startups, tags , , , , , With No Comments

Got asked a few questions about the NYT article “After Setbacks, Online Courses Are Rethought” ( so I wrote down my notes. Would love to hear some of your thoughts too. Here are mine:

1. MOOCs are here to stay. A lot of investor money has been poured into it and many universities have started to contribute to the movement (eg. Coursera,‎). From Coursera’s partnership list (, the service has partnered with 97 different universities around the world – many of them are big brand name institutes such as Stanford, Northwestern and the UC system. In other places, MIT has been running its OpenCourseWare initiative since 2003 to share its lectures with the world. Collectively, what all this suggests is that other accredited universities ought to start taking MOOCs more seriously and adjust how they do things to work with these new technology platforms. In the past, I’ve had professor who decided to show us a Khan Academy video because she thought the explanation was exceptional (though makes you wonder why she wasn’t lecturing. Hm.

To be fair, MOOCs’ existence could change how things are done currently in higher education – that “fear” isn’t completely unfounded. However, the threat should be seen as opportunity; how might educators leverage MOOCs potential to improve how students learn. The relationship between the two can and ought to be collaborative. As many of us who have sat through countless lectures realize, there’s something seriously wrong about professor standing in front yapping away about things they care about. While the systems we have today are not “broken,” they are far from optimal.

2.  It looks like it isn’t for everyone – not everyone has the patience or desire to sit down in front of a laptop and watch lectures on algorithmic design and analysis …but what if our preconception was a result of culture? That we think education only comes in a few forms – teachers lecturing in front of a classroom – and as a result, we can’t help but “discount” the notion of self-taught-ness. If that’s the case, part of the solution would be educating the market. Additionally, MOOCs are far from the solitary introspective learning that recluse genius myths talk about.Following the point on perception, the whole discussion of accretion has spurred out because of (A) incentives and (B) the growing number of users who use MOOCs in professional (academic) context.

  • A) Accreditation is an artificial notion created to measure relative value. It costs time and money to sit through 4 years of college. Somewhere towards the end of college, students come to the blunt realization that knowing how to do something might actually be more important than knowing how to fulfill degree requirements. We, however, currently live in a world that likes certificates and official qualifications (this is why an online degree from a “prestigious” institution > Uni Phoenix) and if we follow this thinking, the future of MOOCs faces the following question – how would you balance what MOOCs are (a platform to disseminate quality affordable education to many) with its accreditation (adding relative institutional value; artificial barriers)? The latter, if we use traditional degree granting metrics, would contradict the former – scarcity suggests that if everyone were to start getting top notch degrees, we would perceive those degrees to be of lesser value. This is why colleges that are more selectivity are sometimes viewed as “better.
  • B) Growing user base – In the early years of MOOCs, the user base consisted of working professionals (who want to enrich themselves), professionals-in-transition (learn skills quickly to leverage a job) and other early adopters (just interested peoples). Now that the movement has started to shift and with more people wanting to use it seriously (MOOCs > college?), perhaps it’s time we put in “minimum” standards against which to evaluate how much people have taken away from their online courses. The difficulty – as MOOCs start to look more like colleges, how would the original goals of these MOOCs change? Exclusivity of college degrees is what frustrated many of the MOOC pioneers to create something else in the first place.

3. Evaluation of MOOCs – obviously the article ( paints a rather unfortunate picture, if we are comparing MOOCs to 4-year universities; if, however, we were to use some other set of measurements, the conclusions may look more relevant – that while people do not complete their courses, they learn and take away what they needed. If that is the case, we have a design puzzle that needs some rethinking – how do we go about providing content that people want and not what we think people want.

4. Design considerations & alternatives – The big issue with MOOCs at the moment, aside from accreditation, is retention. Many low income high schools and less capable physical colleges also face this problem. I would argue that this issue can be very much seen as a startup problem and as any good retention-growth hacker can tell you, it takes a lot of careful long-term tracking and good decision making to retain customers (students).In the tech world, boot camp-style programs are on the rise (eg. 12 week programming camps). They provide structure, motivation and clear evaluation benchmarks. Downside: they are still expensive and lack the “brand name” that traditional colleges provide. What boot camps do well is the motivation – mentors and physical classmates who will make the learning experience much more interactive and encouraging. As it stands, MOOCs can be a very solitary experience.

5. Other Thoughts – there’s a lot of chatter about the relative “decrease in value” of a college degree – personally, I’m not sure where I stand on this. It’s not fair for me, who’s going through a “prestigious” 4 year program to say I would’ve spent the past 4 years doing better learning online.The successful MOOCs probably will be an intersection of what the stakeholders all want (and can compromise/trade off on) – what do MOOCs aspire to give the world (the producer), what students want and need to learn (consumers) and what “we” want from this (society). Society is going to take a bit of convincing… It’s hard to tell policy makers that having kids sit at home is better than going to school. No matter how you spin it.

Other Reads:

“Go Easy on MOOCs” – Carl Straumsheim, Inside Higher Ed (

“An Early Report Card on Massive Open Online Courses” – Geoffrey A. Fowley, Wall Street Journal (


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