MOOCs aren’t inherently good or bad: perspectives for analyzing MOOCs

Technology has no inherent value. The latest smart phone isn’t “better” or “worse” than the previous one. Value doesn’t exist without people: technology has value based on how it’s used.

I believe that MOOCs are a tool, and they can be used for good or for evil. However, I don’t see that perspective much in people’s discussions about MOOCs. Instead, I see people making emotional arguments about whether MOOCs per se are better than sliced bread.

Here are five distinct perspectives for analyzing MOOCs. I hope these can help you frame discussions about this complex topic:

MOOC as technology

The TPACK model calls out three necessary components to effective teaching with technology: Technology, Pedagogy, and Content Knowledge.

In another article I argue that IT departments should focus on the technology “lens.” In my opinion, IT department should stick to this perspective (along with possibly the “potential costs” perspective, below)–the IT department should not get into MOOC as pedagogy. Your campus most likely has pedagogy experts who could speak with more expertise to MOOCs as pedagogical tools.

So what does a MOOC look like in terms of technology? I’d argue the first decision you need to make is:

  • is the technology underlying your campus’s MOOCs going to be strategic/a differentiating factor? or,
  • is the technology underlying your campus’s MOOCs going to be a commodity technology?

If the technology is more strategic (i.e. you want it to set you apart from other institutions), perhaps the technology should be home-built or built through an exclusive consortium. However, if the technology should be more of a commodity, you could use a commodity tool such as Google’s open-source course builder.

Beyond that, when considering MOOCs as technology also think through service management concepts, such as…

  • Who can help us figure out how the service should work?
    • IT demand management (e.g. guessing at how many people will want to use the service)
    • IT financial management (e.g. figuring out what the cost parameters are)
    • Service level management (e.g. building an agreement with the people actually offering the MOOC to make sure everyone is on the same page)
  • Will it work the way we want it to work? (“Warranty”)
    • Availability management (e.g. probably should be available 24x7x365)
    • Capacity management (e.g. probably should be able to handle huge spikes when assignments are due)
    • IT service continuity management (e.g. probably should still work if your data center catches on fire)
    • IT security management (e.g. probably should understand what’s FERPA protected and make sure it’s really protected)
  • Can we follow through on these commitments?
    • Service transition, service operation concepts e.g. change management
  • How are we going to get better at providing this service over time?
    • Continual Service Improvement


MOOC as pedagogical tool

Please make sure you involve your campus’s pedagogy experts when using this method of analysis: your instructional designers, education schools, and/or your teaching and learning centers.

I don’t have a background in instructional design, so I am not going to get into whether MOOCs are “good” or “bad” pedagogical tools. That said, let’s remind ourselves of other ways of teaching:

  • Lecture
  • Socratic method
  • Small group discussions
  • Quizzing and exams
  • Reflections
  • “Flipped” classrooms
  • Clickers
  • etc etc

When you think about each of these ways of teaching, does one stand out as absolutely better than the others?

Hopefully you said “no.” 🙂 Each of these tools has its strength. If the President of the United States were going to teach you about foreign policy, you’d probably want more lecture and interaction and less small group work. If you’re going to teach someone else the content, you probably want more small group discussions to reinforce your own knowledge of the material. Or whatever–the point is, each of these tools has a time and a place.

The same for MOOCs. MOOCs are not a magical cure-all that will replace all other pedagogical tools. Teaching people is really, really hard and there isn’t a simple one-size-fits-all solution no matter how much we want there to be a simple solution to a complex problem. MOOCs will end up being good for teaching some things, and bad for teaching other things.

If I’m guessing, I’d guess that MOOCs are really good for content that people already want to learn, but that’s just a guess. This is not my expertise. Again, make sure you are involving people who understand pedagogy whenever your campus has conversations about MOOCs as pedagogical tools.

Potential value of teaching systems built around MOOCs vs. other teaching systems

Another way of looking at MOOCs is to think what value they provide for students vs. other teaching systems. This is quite difficult, as I don’t know a good way to understand the value that teaching, generally, provides to students.

Assume we are talking about an undergraduate 4-year degree. It is difficult to extricate the value of an individual class from the overall college experience. For the cost of a semester, a student receives…

  • courses and their credits (say 5 classes/15 credits)
  • connections with other students
  • social events (formally provided and informally offered due to their enrollment in the institution)
  • internships and job assistance
  • ancillary services (advising, student health services, technology support)
  • sporting events

and eventually they receive a degree (where a significant portion of the value of that degree is derived from the institution’s ongoing reputation). They also get access to alumni clubs and continued connections through their whole life.

How much of the value the student receives really comes from those 5 classes a semester? If school is worth $20,000 a semester (say) to a student, it is quite difficult to quantify how much of that value is in the classes themselves vs. the other things the student receives. Maybe the classes are only worth $2,000 each (or even $200 each) but they are a necessary evil to get the connections with the other students, etc?

The core question here is, can students (in some cases) receive as much or more value from teaching systems based on MOOCs? How can the value from MOOCs be maximized? How can we answer these questions without knowing the value of our current teaching systems?

Potential costs of teaching systems built around MOOCs vs. other teaching systems

What is the economic cost of teaching a MOOC vs. other teaching systems? What are the other potential negative impacts e.g. potential impact on an institution’s reputation?
How many faculty do you need? What underpinning services are needed (e.g. a way of tracking who’s taken what MOOC)? Notably, what are the start-up costs for beginning to teach MOOCs and to what extent are they a barrier to entry?

Some people view MOOCs exclusively through this lens: my University wants to cut tenured faculty head count, so they’ll use MOOCs.

This is a totally fine method of analysis, but understand it’s not very helpful generally without moving on to weighing those costs vs. the values. Which leads us to…

MOOC value vs. cost assessment

This form of analysis is arguably the useful one: what’s the value of MOOC-based teaching vs. its cost, and how does that compare to other teaching systems?

People weighing in on MOOCs being good or evil want to have this conversation–about the value vs. cost–but they don’t have a clear enough concept of value or cost separately to be able to put the two together.

For example:

Example influencers of MOOC value:

  • Do the MOOCs provide course credit (higher value)? a badge or a certificate (lower value)? no assessment/certificate of completion?
  • Does the audience get access to other services?
  • To what extent does the MOOC enable students to make connections with one another?
  • Does the MOOC use effective pedagogy?
  • Does the MOOC provider have the needed content knowledge?
  • Do MOOC students get discounts on athletic events? 🙂

Example influencers of MOOC cost:

  • Are you using a home-built platform (higher cost) or a commodity platform (lower cost)?
  • For what level of demand/capacity are you designing (e.g. 1000 attendees vs. 1 million)?
  • Who’s teaching the class?
  • How “high touch”/time-intensive is the class for the course provider?

In summary, MOOCs are not inherently good or bad. Consider dissecting discussions about MOOCs to understand the areas being considered: the underlying technology? the pedagogy/effectiveness? the value to students? the cost to the institution? the value vs. the cost?