The Dark Side of the MOOCs

Big Problems with Massive Open Online Courses

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Some MOOC students have encountered major problems with their courses. Bilderlounge / Getty Images

Massive Open Online Courses (commonly known as MOOCs) are free, publicly-available classes with high enrollment. With MOOCs, you can enroll in a course at no cost, do as much work as you please, and learn just about anything from computer science to transcendental poetry.

Platforms like EdX, Coursera, and Udacity bring together colleges and professors that want to contribute to the field of open education. The Atlantic called MOOCs "the single most important experiment in higher education" and there's no doubt that they are changing the way we learn.

However, not everything in the world of open education is going well. As MOOCs have become more popular, their problems have become more pronounced.

Hello…Is Anybody Out There?

One of the biggest problems with MOOCs is their impersonal nature. In many cases, thousands of students enroll in a single section with a single instructor. Sometimes the instructor is only a "facilitator" rather than the course creator, and other times the instructor is absent altogether. Assignments designed to be interactive such as group discussions can reinforce the impersonal nature of these large courses. It's hard enough for a class of 30 to get to know each other, forget learning the names of your 500 peers.

For some subjects, particularly those that are math and science heavy, this isn't a major problem. But, arts and humanities course traditionally rely on in-depth discussion and debate. Learners often feel that they are missing something when they study in isolation.

A Student Without Feedback

In traditional classrooms, the point of instructor feedback isn't just to rank students. Ideally, students are able to learn from feedback and catch future mistakes. Unfortunately, in-depth feedback simply isn't possible in most MOOCs. Many instructors teach unpaid and even the most generous simply aren't capable of correcting hundreds or thousands of papers a week. In some cases, MOOCs provide automatic feedback in the form of quizzes or interactives. However, without a mentor, some students find themselves repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

Few Make it to the Finish Line

MOOCS: Many will try but few will pass. Those high enrollment numbers may be deceiving. When enrollment is nothing more than a few mouse clicks, getting a class of 1000 can be simple. People find out through social media, blog posts, or internet surfing and enroll in just a couple minutes. But, they soon fall behind or forget to log in to the course from the beginning.

In many cases, this isn't a negative. It gives the student the chance to try out a subject without risk and allows access to materials for those that may not be willing to make a larger time commitment. However, for some students, the low completion rate means that they just weren't able to stay on top of the work. The self-motivated, work-as-you-please atmosphere doesn't work for everyone. Some students thrive in a more structured environment with set deadlines and in-person motivation.

Forget About the Fancy Paper

Currently, there's no way to earn a degree by taking MOOCs. There has been a lot of talk about awarding credit for MOOC completion, but little action has been taken. Although there are a few ways to earn college credit, it's best to think about MOOCs as a way to enrich your life or further your education without receiving formal recognition.

Academia is About the Money - At Least a Little

Open education has offered many benefits to students. But, some worry about the negative repercussions to teachers. In many cases, professors are developing and teaching MOOCs (as well as providing e-textbooks) for free. While professorial pay has never been particularly high, instructors used to be able to count on making a supplemental income from research, textbook writing, and additional teaching assignments.

When professors become expected to do more for free, one of two things will happen: colleges will need to adjust salaries accordingly or many of the most talented academics will find work elsewhere. Students benefit when they learn from the best and brightest, so this is a concern that will increasingly affect everyone in the academic sphere.

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Your Citation
Littlefield, Jamie. "The Dark Side of the MOOCs." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Littlefield, Jamie. (2020, August 25). The Dark Side of the MOOCs. Retrieved from Littlefield, Jamie. "The Dark Side of the MOOCs." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).