Are MOOCs Doomed to Fail?

By Paulina Merino
MATD Graduate
Mathieu Plourde/wikipedia

Mathieu Plourde/wikipedia

Are Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) a revolution in higher education or will they forever be just a form of knowledge sharing? Are MOOCs even a “real” education? Their proponents speak about energy, enthusiasm and change happening in today’s education sector and call it “education innovation” (Boyers, 2013). At the same time, many educators believe it to be a form of commercial transaction — distributing information rather than teaching it, pointing to a lack of interaction and the little or no value of completion certificates (Gitanjali, 2013).

What is a MOOC?

As Koller (2012) describes them, MOOCs are massive, in that even thousands of students can be enrolled in the same class at once. They are offered online, which makes them accessible around the globe and affordable. Most importantly, they are teaching events — courses, usually two to several weeks long, with structured teaching, assignments and progression of instructions. They are also developed and taught by highly qualified educators, from top-tier universities, including Princeton, Stanford, Brown, Columbia and Duke. And, maybe most importantly, they are free. Consequently, MOOCs offer an incredible array of subjects to curious minds from anywhere and any budget.

MOOCs in the muck

What is wrong with MOOCs then? Why the dramatic title of this article? The most frequently repeated argument against MOOCs is that they provide limited opportunity for interaction between the professor and the student. A student can move through an entire course with little-to-no direct communication with the professor and receive feedback only from their peers (Boyers, 2013). Stacey (2013) furthers this argument, citing an example of K-12 teachers and their contract agreements about limited class sizes. How can someone effectively teach thousands of students simultaneously?

Evolution in education

Some twenty years ago, online teaching was considered vastly inferior to the classroom-based instruction. The credentials offered via online courses were questioned and only brick-and-mortar schools were considered “real” universities. Are we now facing similar phenomenon? Are traditionalists blocking social media’s evolution as a teaching tool because it questions the values on which they built their careers? Many disparage MOOCs dramatic dropout rate. Gijtani (2013) cites a completion rate of 10 percent or less as proof of MOOCs’ ineffectiveness, noting that those who try them lose interest even before the course is over. However, Haber’s 2013 review of completion/dropout data showed a 48 percent completion rate for students who watched at least one video and completed one assignment in a course. Similarly, some are critical of MOOCs’ limited interactivity while others contend interactivity can be achieved through creative use of technology (Koller, 2013).

They have a place

The ever-growing costs of higher education paired with high unemployment among college graduates may simply force young people to look for non-standard ways of learning. Like many others, I think MOOCs offer real benefits to knowledge-thirsty minds across the globe and that they will only gain in popularity. In 1943, IBM Chairman Thomas Watson said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Sometimes what we know is just not enough to accurately predict the future.

What do you think?

Have you ever taken a MOOC? What was the subject, and do you feel it was as effective as other types of courses you’ve taken? Have you ever taught a MOOC? Were students engaged? Were you overwhelmed by the class size?

Koller, D. (2012, August 1). What we’re learning from online education Retrieved from
Boyers, J. M. (September 2013). Online Done Right: The importance of human interaction for student success. eLearn Magazine. Retrieved from
Haber, Jonathan (25 November 2013). MOOC Attition Rates – Running the Numbers, in College. in HuffPost (December 14, 2014). Retrieved from
Stacey, Paul (May 2013). The Pedagogy of MOCCs. [Blog post]. Retrieved from
Gitanjali, M. (December 2013). MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) Redefining Learning. [Online Portal]. Retrieved from


  • The title of this article caught my attention. MOOC is something new to me that I have never heard of before. As I am wrapping up my master’s degree I am finding I am in the research stage of what’s next for me. I feel that participating in a MOOC is something that could be interesting to pursue. I did some research online looking for the length of a course, and it appears that these would vary based maybe on the course topic. I will need to do some further research on this method to determine if it would be best for me to build my knowledge and skills.
    Thanks for the great topic to research.

  • As a college freshman with a 40 year break before returning to finish my degree I am grateful for all the technology that made finishing college possible for me. While I know that for-credit online learning is different than MOOCs, at the foundation of both are the sweeping changes in technology that have made each possible. Today professors can share their knowledge globally with those who have a computer, an Internet connection, a browser, and a thirst for knowledge. While earning a graduate degree online in T & D will augment my retirement career, I believe learning via a MOOC will expose me to knowledge I never had time to invest in or just enjoy for the sake of learning with essentially no end purpose in mind. Moreover, there was a time when I could have only dreamed of attending a school like Stanford, Brown, or the like , but with the equalizer of technology and the platform of MOOCs layered on that, what would have been unimaginable just a generation ago is available to all today. Participation in my first MOOC is still sometime in the future, but it is absolutely a desirable model. I can only hope that colleges can uncover a way to monetize MOOCs such that that will continue to operate and, at some future time, will thrive!

  • I believe I took an MOOC which was a TESOL certification course. I thought it was great because I was able to get through the materials on my own and I was in contact with the instructor via email and the messaging system on their website. I can see how a MOOC would not work for fields that need direct attention… like biochemistry perhaps. But I think they’re great for crash courses in things adults might be interested in on the side, or to get certified in something without having to take time off work. My wife also took a course like this to renew her security guard certification.

  • I haven’t taken a MOOC yet but I know I will in the future. There are so many things out there to learn and the idea that you can participate in a course from a major university with thousands of students is exciting. The way we learn is changing, has changed, we learn digitally now more than ever. MOOCs are part of education’s evolution.

  • Excellent article on MOOCS, lots of points to ponder. It appears there is a market for MOOCS, not necessarily monetary but intrinsic. Even with the high dropout rate, a percentage of students finish and benefit from the learning experience. It’s difficult to say if MOOCS will be around, however, as global interest and online connectivity continues, more interest in MOOCS may grow in other countries, largely due to the accessibility, motivation and affordability of the classes.

    As stated, online learning faced hesitancy and experienced growing pains, stretched the theories to include the online learning experience. At this juncture, we may see growing pains before the maturity arises. Let’s remember that the Dr’s and Professors that teach the class are excited and motivated by teaching others, intrinsic.

    One aspect I really like is the lack of boundaries and walls, the information is available. One concern, is there checks and balances to validate the research. If anything MOOCS challenge the education norm, a paradigm shift is soon to follow.

  • Great post, Paulina! I remember when universities and colleges started offering online classes. Students were skeptical about how they would be able to learn via the internet. Some students even frowned upon online classes saying they were the easy way out of taking classes on campus. Now look at today and how so many students are earning their degrees entirely online. I believe MOOCs will continue to grow and be the new way of learning in they future.

  • I think that MOOCs are here to stay because with technology there is so much to learn and the opportunity to learn independently and add value to your own resume and portfolio will work to garner more attention allowing MOOCs to achieve more success and notoriety.

  • Great post, Paulina! I think that the concept of MOOCs are wonderful. I also think it is a wonderful learning tool/technique. Unfortunately, I have not yet had an opportunity to participate in a MOOC nor have I taught a MOOC. However, I would be interested to so do in the future. Thank you for sharing!

  • I have attempted to participate in a MOOC with Stanford University, And yes I “dropped out”. It was because the course had “no value” or reward for me. There was no credit given or certificate associated with it. MOOCs are great if you want to challenge yourself and learn something new but what is the end game. I have taken several online courses that were extremely fulfilling with focused albeit limited interaction from the instructor. And sure it challenged me but I was motivated by a grade. Also the course was so open that it didn’t have much structure in terms of learning goals. I think the idea was mostly to gain access to this global learning community and “learn” from each other. But it didn’t take into account other people’s levels of learning or what they cam to the table with. An instructor can properly gauge that from the class but that would be difficult with a hundred student but a thousand is impossible. I feel like the structure of a MOOC needs to be refined more before it can define its success.

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