Stick a Fork in the MOOC.. it was half-baked at best and now it’s done

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Justin Reich and poo bahhhhs at Harvard came out with a blog posting in Educational Researcher (  trumpeting “exciting results”. We are supposed to continue to be excited about MOOCs as a game changer in the face of data that shows most people don’t finish MOOCs and that very few people learn from them. Of course, Harvard is heavily invested in MOOCs, so they have to get excited about something. Methinks the emperor has a new set of clothes.

The big finding that they claim is “shocking” is based on big data and, we can assume, big grants. They’ve really looked at every orifice of the MOOC. Multiple methods – interviews, observations, conversations with anyone connected, surveys and logs… yes, individual keystrokes of individual users (let’s put ethics aside here, there’s enough to play with).

And what is all the excitement about? What is the big finding?

They found that –wait for it – Learning activities in MOOCs lead to doing more stuff. And furthermore, the people who do more activities tend to score better and finish the course.

Are they kidding?

Is this a blog posting from The Onion or an emergency dispatch from the DUH file?

They are excited because a massive study shows that students who tend to click on buttons and actually spend time in the environment tend to learn more, BUT you can’t say it’s as a result of the MOOC; they MAY just be better students and tend to do their work and are smarter, so they would have done better, MOOC or no… or even done better if they spent the time playing with their phone.

This finding – people tend to learn more who do more, is ludicrously obvious. Before any more money is wasted, I am pretty sure that grass is usually green and putting your hand on a hot stove it a bad thing, so no grants for studying those thing – ok?

When I was in grade school, the first thing the teacher did every day was take attendance. I’m guessing this was not to remind her of our names. I would say that, without the benefit of a fancy acronym or a massive study, those educators from 50 years ago had already figured out that students learned more “stuff” when they were in the classroom.

Problem is – unlike in the classroom, in a MOOC, most people aren’t there at all – they signed up and stopped coming. Most of the remaining few are “multi-tasking – a fancy name for not paying attention.


Completion Rates of less than 10%

Recent studying are showing that the dawn of the MOOC is turning into the midmorning of “Oh yea, Been there. Done that.  Got the t shirt.” The reason for this drop off in attendance seems obvious to me. If a top notch person is talking, I’ll attend… be it online or on tv. I know they aren’t going to hear me if I talk to them, but also know they won’t be bothered if I read while they talk.

For a really great person I might watch one or even two sessions, but I won’t give up something of timely importance, like preparing for a class, to see it. After a few sessions, a good movie will win out. Eventually, even a nap sounds better. Why bother? It will probably be recorded somewhere and I can watch it whenever I want and I have too much information to get through now anyway. Now, for MOOC from any ol person – forget it. I have book shelves of really good ideas that I haven’t gotten to.

MOOCs were an interesting idea. NOTHING more.

Foundational to their limited success is that MOOCs offer a new, cool, more convenient way to take a class. They aren’t a new teaching or learning style. They are a new method of delivery.

The cool factor and convenience would have been enough for MOOCs to have a quick hoorah – an interesting experiment, but then administrators got into the mix. They heard those great big number of students and their bottom lines started quivering. They found out that the M in MOOC meant massive and massive was just what they wanted.

They knew that one of the Os in MOOC stood for online and that made them even more happy. Wires are easy. As they gleefully jingled the change in their pockets, they contemplated a school with less buildings, less offices, less faculty, and less parking. More of the money and less of the expense. Hooray!

The OPEN part of MOOC, as in free and open, they didn’t really understand, so in typical  fashion, when something didn’t make sense, it didn’t matter. THE AGE OF THE MOOC was on!

Everyone tried one once. Sometimes twice if the prof was particularly famous or the person you were trying to impress was into them (I watched all of Bergman’s films because of Nurse Nell – and like the MOOCs I tried, nothing much happened)

Of course people didn’t listen. Of course they didn’t sit through to the end. There’s no engagement. Making me click a button to make a slide presentation move forward is not engagement. It’s annoying. Most people sign up because it sounds like a good idea. Then other things come to the fore. Enrollment crashes. People drop MOOCs in dizzying numbers. 10% completion is high. 4% is no surprise.

Now let’s remember the real reason for a class – to learn something (one hopes). Crashing enrollment and, hey, just thinking about the learning environment should give any but the most rabid supporter a hint that MOOCs don’t teach much. Certainly compared to any other educational event – reading a book, watching a film, sitting in a class with a real live professor (while texting and not while texting) or having a discussion with a real scholar, a MOOC will never be more than a shadow learning event and students won’t stick around to be bored unless they are getting credit for boredom. Any interaction is created by the student. Might as well have a book study group with no leader and no one with any better idea than you what the book means. So, MOOCs become a way to cheaply sell credit. In my world, that concept conjures the term – degree mill.

So, if MOOCs are credit granting machines, what are those MOOC credits going to be worth?

As a faculty member who sits on entrance committees, I now know to check for MOOC classes. I ask whether the class was “give em some money and snooze through it” or if the student learned something. Soon I won’t even ask, I’ll assume. Anyone in education knows about the online degree mills that spend a lot on advertising, but offer classes with a minimum of substance. We know that, despite their slick commercials, a degree from these places is worthless.

On the other hand, a class from Harvard or UMass or other institution that is a repository and creator of new knowledge really means something…at least it has in the past. That is quickly changing. A MOOC class from Harvard demeans the student, the learning and the institution. That Harvard is embracing mass production of online courses (over 500 a year) will do more to tarnish the brand. Many large universities are taking this tack. It sounds good, it looks good on the bottom line for a few years. However, the price is a heavy one.

Symptom of a very bad idea

Cashing in on the panache of a university name is offensive and contradicts the idea of learning and the purpose of a university. Universities are places where new knowledge is created. The move to make them profit centers come from the same idiots who brought us standardized testing in K-12 schools (and the same state… I won’t mess with Texas, but I wish they would stop messing with me). Standardized testing has forced a giant step backward in education toward teaching factlets and preparing for tests. The students don’t learn to put the factlets together to think and solve problems. Passing tests doesn’t help anyone but the companies who create tests.

Now, universities are to become places where a single prof can spew thoughts to masses and the students can regurgitate those thoughts back to be graded by computers. No thinking necessary.

The problem with this approach is that things change.

If we set up a fact factory, we can churn out clones. Teachers are paid to teach and the teaching load increases while support for research disappears.

However, when something changes and a problem crops up or some system stops working, as things are wont to do, there’s no one who’s been laboring in obscurity in the office at the end of a hall, publishing papers and thinking about that particular problem. THAT obscure thinker is one of the crucial values to society that universities provide. They are the repositories not of facts, but of thinkers. When you force the thinkers to stop thinking and only pay them to teach others to repeat the known, then when the unknown raises its head, we are helpless.


It is dangerous and wrong for another reason – more mundane, but as important. The evolution of thought within a field is a journey of many small steps taken by many people. It is essential that this knowledge is shared, but putting it on the table is not enough. If there is no time to eat a good meal, then one turns to fast food. If that becomes the standard fare, I am reminded of Tom Lehrer, who said, “Life is like a sewer. What you get out of it depends on what you put in.” Even the best of universities are serving mcclasses with abandon.

With teachers only teaching, they fall behind in knowing and considering and debating what is happening in the field. In the new world of the university, with a few teachers teaching MOOCs to the masses and others teaching online classes out of a can to smaller, but often as uninspired settings, a majority of faculty are adjuncts. There is no community of learning where ideas are explored. There is no research, despite research being a core mission to the university, so no new knowledge is shared. Universities become irrelevant. Not because they SHOULD be irrelevant, but because the worst parts of teaching are being cloned and called education for those who want to make money and grow the mid-management of the university. Taketh from either end and stuff it in the middle becomes the happy place where MOOCs reside.


Once again – A mooc is just delivery.

Why? The fundamental reason is that the innovation of MOOCs is not about the teaching.  IT’S JUST A NEW MODEL FOR DELIVERY. It’s a great improvement in delivery. However, it is not an improvement in learning or in teaching. You may feel that it’s you and a great professor alone on your computer, but you soon realize that it is you and a great professor and you are stuck at the back of a mind bogglingly huge lecture hall and the only interaction you get is to chat to the equally disillusioned person sitting in the seat beside you.

In order to take advantage of the online space requires a new pedagogy. It is possible, it is powerful, BUT it takes more time, not less. Because the online space is on-going, the learning events in a class can continue throughout the week, not only during the 3 hours scheduled for a face to face class. What that requires is a teacher willing (and compensated) to monitor and interact with discussions throughout the week. I have done this. It is a wonderful explosion of thinking. You get drawn into following the evolving thoughts of the class and, as a teacher, it forces one to explore and explain an incredibly breadth of ideas. However, it takes far more time than walking into a class and lecturing for a couple of hours, answering questions and grading projects at the end of the term. Yet, the compensation model from the promoters of MOOCs want to pay fewer professors less to teach. Why should they be paid more? Why limit the number of people in the class? It’s the same effort to teach 20 as it is to teach 10 as it is to teach 10,000. Isn’t it?

The Problem of Scale

Petroski writes about the problem of scale. A pencil is pretty sturdy. Take that same thickness of wood and scale it – make it 10’ long, and it will break under its own weight. Schwen writes of micro, meso and macro interventions in instructional design. He points out that most of our design is based on micro analysis leading to design for individuals. We design a class envisioning an interaction between a single professor and a single student. Add more students and it is effectively a clone of that micro design. When, we must ask, does the class break under its own weight?

Any teacher knows that once you exceed a certain number of students, you have to teach at them with occasional deeper interactions. I suspect that a MOOC is no worse an educational setting as a lecture hall with over 100 students “listening” while a teacher attempts to entertain and instruct. If we are attempting to replicate more cheaply a flawed instructional method, great…mission accomplished.

Is that our goal?

Now the data

The final area I find troubling about the EdTech Researcher opinion piece in particular and big data in general is an underlying assumption that by combing through masses of data, we – well, actually, an algorithm – can come up with the perfect learning solution. This was the idea behind reusable learning objects of the 90’s and programmed instruction of the 50’s and 60’s.

The problem with this approach is another unstated, often unrealized assumption – that teaching all the pieces of a thing means you understand the whole and can do it. For example, if you know the vocabulary and vocabulary rules, you can speak a language. If you can state theories of communication and management, you are an effective manager. Behaviorism, for that is what underlies these ideas, falls under the weight of impossible granularity and the elastic, changing, complex, and social nature of learning and knowing. In some limited instances it works.

For most cases, when we as educators are trying to illuminate the complexity of a subject, chasing the chimera of a computer constructed learning is a disservice to all.

In this case, after massive study of massive data, the big take away was a single statistic. All those individuals in all those learning situations and the biggest take away was a single statistic – time spent. “But wait”, I hear them cry! “We can tell many stories.” Of course they can. But the danger is they feel it is acceptable, even praiseworthy, to report one number and to make decisions based on one number and encourage others to do the same. The world and learning is not complex, is the soothing lie. Look, we can represent it with one statistic. In the article, Reich claims this is a move one should “expect to see quite often”. One hopes not.

The danger here is that because a single variable has come from terrabytes of data, it has more power, somehow and the conclusion is more important. Yet the conclusion is soft. It is a correlation – like umbrellas and rain – statistically, we tend to see them together. There is a correlation, but no one would make the mistake of thinking umbrellas cause rain. However, within a short time, with the backing of massive data, it will be no surprise to see someone write that after a detailed study, it was shown that more time and more activity led to students passing the course. This is NOT supported by the data. However, there seems to be a lot of dancing and winking going on to imply that this is the case. It is NOT.

From my experience teaching online, I suggest an alternative reason. I have many students who read and do everything I put up in my online class, even the things that I clearly label optional or state that this is for future consideration, if they are interested in a particular area of study. Of course, they are also the better students. They are most likely to complete the course. That I offered them more alternatives to interact with the course did not make them more likely to finish or participate.

In other words, activity is a descriptive statistic. Those who spend more time in a course are more likely to finish the course – whether it is online or face to face. I can tell you from my experience that the opposite is true – those who finish the course are more likely to have spent more time in the course.

Again, we are leafing through the DUH file.

Similarly, those who run their eyes down every page in a book are more likely to get something out of it than those who leave the book on the shelf. It may be correct, but it is hardly something to get excited about – even with charts of many kinds and colors.


SRI researchers visited schools, districts, and CMOs; made classroom observations; interviewed organization and school leaders as well as teachers, parents, and students; conducted teacher and student surveys; and analyzed students’ user log files over the school year.”

They went to all that trouble to say one thing that doesn’t mean very much. It seems to me if you are working with terrabytes of data, you might come out with a richer understanding that there is SOME correlation between time spent and test scores – if they learn to the test, they test to the test.

But not clearly enough to say that spending more time studying more CAUSES them to do better.

Remember the difference here is this: a correlation MIGHT exist such as – I tend to see more people with umbrellas when it is raining. But I can’t tell you if the rain caused the umbrella to come into being, if the umbrella created the rain, or people like to hold silly, brightly colored cloth on sticks to make them feel better during a rain..or a mark of respect for the rain god… you get the drift. Many possible explanations. NONE can be proven.

With this massive work, the stupidly simplistic finding, well worthy of an ignoble prize, that should somewhat embarrass those who did it, but MUCH more, should embarrass Harvard, the EdTech Researcher and Reich for stating this as if it were any finding at all.

If only all those people who sign up for the MOOCs will just participate, they will learn more.

But they won’t. Adding a button to click or asking students in MOOCs to respond to question that doesn’t provide anything but canned feedback won’t change that.

Stick a fork in MOOCs. Let them remain what they are – an interesting experiment in mass delivery of a few specialists’ presentations. That is neat enough and useful enough.

However, when one tries to monetize MOOCs and willingly uses this tool to support the continued commercialization of education, rather than making clear arguments of the continued value of higher education to a society, one is helping to bury an ailing patient. Certainly, fast food has, by some measures, the same essential levels of required vitamins as a balanced diet, but we know that something vital is missing. What are we preparing for our menu?