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Pop Quiz: Are MOOCs the future?

At a meeting the other night I got into a somewhat heated discussion with an older friend and colleague, who was criticising our institution for failing to offer any Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) that are open to participation by the broader public. This, he argued, was a sign that the university is behind the times and failing to meet the standards set by its primary competitors, many of whom do offer such courses.

I personally have never had a positive opinion of MOOCs, largely for the same reasons I am against large theatre lectures: they turn the course into a performance by one person, prevent meaningful interaction between students and teachers, and make it difficult or impossible to assign coursework that requires thoughtful marking an/or exchange of ideas. When we go from hundreds to many thousands of students, these problems are all magnified. In a way, there seems to be nothing that distinguishes MOOCs from the many lines of edutainment videos that also include supplementary online tests. In fact, I can’t think of any way the experience would be different if the “professor” at the front of the room were played by an actor with a script rather than a real, qualified expert in the given discipline.

When this becomes the case, isn’t something wrong? Isn’t it also against the basic educational ethos to reduce students to a torrent of faceless mooks (ha!) taking computer-corrected quizzes? Maybe I’m really missing something here, but this seems like exactly the opposite of the real mission of higher education.

What do you think? Are MOOCs the future? Do you have any experience with online courses, massive or otherwise?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm ET.

Featured image: Matthew Boden

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Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal ( if you like his work!

1 Comment

  1. June 25, 2013 at 1:08 pm —

    I’m a bit wary of MOOCs as well, though I sheepishly admit that if I was ever asked to teach one for a bit of much needed extra cash… I would. From what little I do know of MOOCs, it seems that in some circumstances people who are taking the class that live in an area will often meet to discuss and work on the material as much as several times a week. The real learning, I suspect, happens in these study groups. I have no idea to what extent these are self-motivated or encouraged/required by the instructor, but I think that’s in itself is a great way to learn.

    On the other hand, MOOCs are making it very hard for groups to market small, focused online classes that charge a fee to pay their instructors. Everyone wants online classes to be free, but not everyone who wants to offer classes has the big-U funding to make that so.

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