Blog Post

Why MOOCs Fail - Where is the Engagement?

Fortune magazine argues that MOOCs still offer great benefits but as the recent University of Pennsylvania study demonstrated, MOOCs are not living up to the hype. I've been in several MOOCs and even if the content is great, I see no real advantage in the format that one couldn't just as well achieve with a well-stocked university library, the Great Courses series, and YouTube. But, all that is information. What is needed to turn information into knowledge?

According to Davenport, there are four Cs in converting information into knowledge:

  1. Comparison of information
  2. Consequences of information
  3. Connections of information
  4. Conversation of information

These four Cs require people to interact with each other to share their pieces of information and convert the pieces into actionable knowledge. That is why MOOCs don't work. The MOOCs have discussion forums but that only gives the appearance of interactions. I have yet to see a true meeting of minds that signify engagement with the material and fellow learners. Basically, what you have is the large lecture course magnified a 100 times over. You might as well try having a class discussion in a fully-packed football stadium.

That is why 2014 will be the year of the Small Private Online Course - SPOCs. Because, real education is all about engaging students.



Interesting post!  Just to play devil's advocate, though, I find myself wondering, if we're going to have the Small Private Online Course based on a MOOC but taught in person by a teacher to real students--why do we need the MOOC at all?  What's wrong with a community college class that it needs to be co-taught by M.I.T. professors?

I worry that the article on SPOCs rests on the assumption that M.I.T. classes, even taught at a distance, must inevitably be "better" than a community college class, in every instance, for every teacher, for every group of students.  The teacher alters the pace and adds activities to essentially a set curriculum, which might not fully reflect the needs of the students as well as a curriculum designed with those students in mind.

SPOCs also seem, for those students at the community college at least, to cancel out some of the biggest benefits of MOOCs--the fact that they're free and open to anyone with an interest. 

If it's more a case of community college professors using a great collection of resources (along the lines of the library, Great Courses series and youtube), then maybe it's okay.   But in that case, what does the M.I.T. connection give students? Are they doing it purely for the name recognition?


I fully agree with your arguments and especially questioning the assumption that M.I.T. courses are inherently better than community college courses. This may be the ultimate irony of the MOOC to SPOC journey in that students realize that the best educational opportunities are in their backyard through a good community college program.


In a word: blogs.  The linked comments by Princeton History Professor Jeremy Adelman ring true.  Might the value be not so much in what students consume, but rather through what they produce?

This approach allows for both local and remote teaching resources.



I like the idea of using blogs but what about other online tools such as co-created YouTube videos or other digital presentations? Even a KickStarter project could be an excellent demonstration of student learning and engagement.


I agree with this line of argument.   At the same time, we're going to have an intriguing time this year seeing if we can turn a MOOC into such an experience.   That's one part of our FutureEd initiative:      We will be working to see if a MOOC, with the right kind of wrangling, can become a massive international collaborative research project. 


No idea if this will work or not but we certainly do know that the students in the f2f class who are wrangling the MOOC will learn hugely.  More to follow!


Is the FutureEd Initiative planning to use the Four C's model for knowledge creation? Or are they planning on using another method/model?


I immediately thought about the FutureEd MOOC after reading this post.  I have been thinking a lot lately about MOOCs in relation to the state of higher ed and the perception that they are predatory to the academy as a whole. I feel that the FutureEd course, if it works, could very well be the answer to a non-participatory MOOC while still maintaining the integrity of the MOOC without an evolution into a SPOC and I wonder what that might do to argument of the big ugly monster headed for the tower.  On one hand perhaps it would enable the MOOC to have its way with us but on the other (and this is where I lean) perhaps it would help us to look at a MOOC as simply just another tool for content delivery and perhaps some high level connections between groups rather than individuals.  If we took the grouping of individuals out of the hands of the MOOC and put it into the hands of people and let them self-select into groups (which would likely come through institutions) those groups could report back through the MOOC and perhaps an engagement between groups would be more meaningful and less threatening. 


You seem to be moving toward a Community of Practice model which I personally think is a great idea for learning!


I would be interested to learn about the dimensions and criteria the FutureEd MOOC organisers have set in advance to evaluate the current MOOC?  In particular what criteria have been set around user experience, user engagement, and participant retention and completion rates


I would be interested to learn about the dimensions and criteria the FutureEd MOOC organisers have set in advance to evealuate the current MOOC?  In particular what criteria have been set around user experience, user engagement, and participant retention and completion rates


First, I don't see MOOCs as predatory.  I see administrators and legislators as predatory if they substitute a MOOC for anything like a real course for real credit.  This isn't one.  There is no way it could be.  I'm writing about that for a piece coming out soon on Hybrid Pedagogy.  One reason I did this one was to actually get past the hype and hysteria and learn the business model, limitations, all that.   It's not predatory.  The system of higher education in 2014 is predatory.  We're 70% contingent and adjunct labor.  That's a travesty.   See my blog "Schadenfreude for the MOOCs is not Joy for the Higher Education Status Quo" for a longer analysis.  It's false thinking to think MOOCs are the problem and not a symptom of a terrible situation that needs reversing.

And I hasten to add that large lecture classes, to my mind, are another symptom of a problem that needs reversing.  That's the status quo that I also question.

Finally, about my own MOOC:  I am collecting no fees for doing this MOOC and my agreement is it only runs if I run it.   Teachers are using it in some cases for credit towards professional development but it is being used as a supplement not a substitute---like a textbook , only free.  


I'm trying to learn and communciate what I learn and get us past the scapegoating of one phenomenon when we need a concerted, smart, collaborative campaign to return us to an idea that publicly funded higher education is a necessity for democracy and civil society.



I am wondering if I should have taken more time with my post - I am wondering if it came off that I was calling MOOCs predatory?  What I was really trying to address was the perception of MOOCs as predatory and questioning if the FutureEd course would help to combat that perception.  I feel that it could because of your approach to partner so many face to face entities with the MOOC. I am viewing the MOOC as a product - like a textbook - around a topic that is allowing a broader conversation with those that have self selected into groups with a face to face component.  Some of these "groups" are classes for credit while some are just discussion groups - we are doing a faculty discussion group around it actually - but the point is that the groups have the autonomy of choosing what is important to the group and using the MOOC to that end.  The directives, goals, and outcomes of these groups may even differ slightly from that of the MOOC itself and they may only use a part of the MOOC to meet their stated outcomes.  This whole idea seems like it has the possibility to be perceived as less predatory. 

I agree that it is not MOOCs themselves that are predatory but rather the administrators and legislators that think they can take the place of a real course.  For those of us that are trying to find real value in MOOCs one of the approaches is for the MOOC to evolve into a SPOC.  What I find interesting about the FutureEd approach is that the MOOC stays a MOOC but the real learning happens small face to face environments. Perhaps flipping the MOOC. This approach seems unique to me in the scope of the MOOC conversation and I am looking forward to seeing how it pans out.



Autumm393, Thanks for clarifying.  Actually, we hope to turn the MOOC itself into a grand participatory learning, interactive and research experience too.   The face to face students will be working as community managers with many different forums and experiments--such as a crowdsourced timeline of educational innovation.   The whole thing will be a gigantic learning experience for us all.  I'm ready to get started!


MOOCs probably present a greater 'threat' to privatised control, organisation and dissemination of knowledge than to people who facilitate learning. Some of the texts on offer in my field (biology) have so much additional online content that they are effectively MOCCs (Massive online closed courses) - entry being granted by the payment of AUD160 plus and restricted to a two year period. The only thing they lack is the institutional stamp of approval of a MOOC.


MOOCS and enormous lecture classes seem to be necessary evils in the current university framework. But I can't get away from the view that there is no better way to learn than reading followed by face to face discussion and conversation in small groups (3 - 10 people). We need to figure out how to make that possible for more people.


hi Caleb


This MOOC and most of the LMS systems used in education are bound/constricted by the structure of the university (admin needs) and lack of imagination. Corporations and others have far more sophisticated systems that allow for all that you have wished for and more. this includes the ability to have open discussions, restricted meetings and other combinations.

Choosing the Coursera platform and structuring in the manner for this course was problematic at best. Look elsewhere.