MOOCs: Is That All There Is?

This week Coursera announced its launch of Specializations, sequenced courses designed to help students achieve deeper levels of mastery as well as the credentials to demonstrate that mastery. At about $200 per sequence, Specializations also provides an alternative revenue stream for Coursera and its partners, which may be why the announcement featured in news outlets like and Forbes.

I just signed up with Coursera a couple of weeks ago to take my first ever MOOC, a content strategy course offered through Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. If I opt in, and finish the six-week course, including a final assignment, I receive a Signature Track credential for about $40.

Departing from the more aspirational mission of “education for everyone” that sparked the MOOC revolution, Coursera’s new venture seems to appeal most to working people looking for a way to hone their knowledge and skills to compete more successfully in today’s job market. And that’s great. If Coursera et al can deliver what folks need to make even a small difference in their lives and do it for a reasonable cost, I’m all in.

But I still see MOOCs falling short of their potential. And a lot of that has to do with that tired and untrendy word: pedagogy. There is simply nothing terribly compelling about the MOOC I’m currently enrolled in. And I suspect that my experience in this MOOC is not unique.

Here’s what happens:

  • I watch a video of people talking.
  • A slide pops up telling me, in two sentences, what I just heard.
  • I am presented with a “learning question” and I choose from two options: the right answer or the wrong answer.
  • A short “Bring it Back to Work” summary of the topic emphasizes the lesson one more time.
  • If I choose to, I can participate in threaded discussions, promoting comments and threads I find valuable.

There are certainly things that are right about this scenario.

  • The subject matter is timely, demonstrating a nimbleness that is not always easy to achieve in a traditional university setting.
  • It features not just one “sage on the stage” but a number of experts able to forge a broader, more diverse curriculum.
  • It promises to deliver six short lessons efficiently and predictably.
  • The more a student participates, the more she will likely learn.

What’s not working well:

  • More talking heads are still talking heads.
  • Because all the lessons are pre-recorded, there is very little room for spontaneity, exploration, energy, or even authenticity.
  • Canned lessons don’t allow instructors to adapt to their students; rather, students must adapt to them.
  • Threaded discussion is an inadequate platform for participation, particularly in a course enrolling hundreds of students.

Coursera’s new ventures answer some long-standing questions about the future of MOOCs. But what if we asked different questions of education technology? What if we asked it to do more than automate learning? What if we asked it to promote engaged, sustained, and creative learning? That would be a course worth signing up for.

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