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Moocs: Disruptive force in education or passing fad?

Daniel Coats. 12 February 2014, 12:24 pm
Moocs: Disruptive force in education or passing fad?

With the backing of billionaires, venture capitalists, educationalists and the news media alike, it came as little surprise when the New York Times heralded 2012 "The Year of the Mooc".

But what the heck is a Mooc?

Moocs - Massive Open Online Courses - are the online equivalent of a traditional University course. Often comprising of a series of short video lectures, augmented by interactive quizzes, course notes and discussion forums, Moocs are generally free and open to the public. Some Moocs also offer students a certificate upon completion of the course and its requisite assignments.

Despite the concept of the Mooc having been first trialled only three years before, by two professors at the University of Manitoba, early indications of the Moocs success were promising: only six months after launch, not-for-profit Coursera had enrolled 1.7 million students into its selection of online postsecondary courses, which range from Cryptography to Dinosaur Palaeobiology. Co-founder Andrew Ng wasn't the only one touting growth "faster than Facebook" - at the very same time, a slew of similar ventures arose, both for-profit and not-for-profit, boasting similarly rapid growth.

The sense of a true, global revolution in learning was almost palpable, after years of critics deriding our industrial-age approach to education. Leveraging the universal nature of the web, Moocs took the best lecturers that the Ivy League had to offer and put them in front of an unprecedented global audience of millions.

Time magazine described the Mooc as "Ivy League for the masses," while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation created a fund specifically for research into the Mooc's effectiveness. Indeed, at the time, it was less a question of whether Moocs would succeed, and more a question of why it hadn't happened sooner.

So having reading that, you can probably guess at what happened next.

Just as interactive whiteboards failed to live up to their lofty expectations a few years before, so enthusiasm for the Mooc saw a sharp decline in 2013. Early data indicated high attrition rates, low achievement levels, and no indication that this technology has, as many hoped, transcended social and cultural borders - and the media have decided to run with it.

Among the reasons cited by students for failing to finish their online courses were that the content was too basic - or too advanced - or simply that there were so many courses from which to choose that shopping around for the right one proved time-consuming. For those who were also holding down a full-time job or study, the time commitment was simply untenable. Given the optimism that greeted early Moocs, and having overcome many of the technical hindrances which would have held back such a concept a decade ago, it is a shame to see that scepticism is now the common tune of the conversation.

If you ask me, though, the educational sea change which many so ardently anticipated in 2012 is already well underway and it hasn't taken top-down decision-making by large institutions or wealthy benefactors to begin taking effect.

Indeed, thanks to the open nature of the internet, coupled with the initiative of many generous and forward-thinking teachers, there are already plenty of examples of useful websites with the purpose of helping students learn, including home-grown examples such as No Brain Too Small, Studyit, and NCEA Revision, to name a few. Internationally, the likes of Khan Academy and even Wikipedia in a broader sense, are paving the way forward toward a more connected education, in a time of almost constant internet connectivity.

Even more important than any single site alone, however, is the potential for new, preferably open platforms to draw information from all across the web, whether a YouTube video, Wikipedia entry, or archived news article, and weave them into a dynamic curriculum, using the vast amount of computational intelligence and information that is at our fingertips. Fortunately, there are organisations that are already beginning work on this very problem, such as Gooru and TED-Ed, two free tools that allow anyone to collate online resources into a course, which can then be shared with and altered by others.

In short then, I would refute any claims that the idea of the Mooc is flawed beyond repair, or that it is destined to fall into obscurity before someone concocts the next revolutionary idea.

However, I do believe that the Mooc still borrows too heavily from the hierarchical, sage-on-the-stage model of traditional learning. To think of it more positively, I see the Mooc as representing only one of the first tentative steps towards a far more powerful model for online learning. After all, no one really wants to see an education system that simply dilutes and distributes a handful of Harvard lectures to millions of students in the name of efficiency, at the cost of a meaningful education. Rather, we should strive for a future in which technology acts to solve the problems that today hinder students from learning to their own maximum potential.

Of course, there is no way to plot, even haphazardly, what shape this classroom of the future will take, nor I do believe that we should bet too heavily on one outcome or another. Many new ideas and methodologies, however convincing, remain unproven at such large scale, the Mooc being a case in point. But to put on the green thinking hat for a moment and envision an ideal classroom aided by the power of technology, I see it as having three defining aspects, described by the adjectives "adaptive", "immersive", and "collaborative".


In a year which saw the Mooc's success prove less massive than its name suggested, big data emerged as one of twenty-thirteen's new go-to buzzwords in the media. But behind the complex algorithms and computer science PhD's, big data proponents, such as the education-oriented start-up Knewton, pose some very logical ideas. Acknowledging that no two students learn most effectively in the same way or at the same pace, it makes sense that the curriculum be tailored to their personal strengths and weaknesses, in ways which only technology can practically achieve.

The potential for data and personalisation to improve the learning experience is vast, as teaching begins to move away from set syllabi and national examinations towards a classroom in which each student works at their own pace and to their own strengths.

Not only does an adaptive education have the potential to ensure that students remain motivated by delivering a curriculum which appeals to their way of learning - peppering lessons with entertaining videos and interactive quizzes, or offering rewards for unlocking certain modules - but this data can also empower teachers to intervene early in areas where students are having difficulty, before the issue escalates. And by instantaneously working out where most students are going wrong, teachers can quickly revise the way they teach all students to address those common stumbling blocks.

Enough studies have shown that an inability to read or write in a student's early years of school often leads to far higher dropout rates in later years - one study found that an inability to read proficiently by nine or 10 meant that students were four times as likely to drop out of high school. It goes without saying that adverse social factors and race are also unfairly telling of a young student's future success.

Not only does our current way of thinking about achievement act to diminish a student's career prospects, but it also leaves them feeling embarrassed and unmotivated when it comes to their learning. If we could identify and address key risk factors at an early stage, using data collated from the progress levels of students nationwide, we have the potential to greatly increase not only the individual's level of achievement, but also their confidence and motivation to succeed.


You may well have formed the impression, based on what I've described so far, the classroom of the future will be dead silent but for the soft clatter of keyboard keys and the faint hum of computer headphones, every student working quietly - intently - alone.

Although the process of acquiring new knowledge often requires peace and quiet, I hope to see the future of the classroom as being even more active than it is today, with the sounds of discussion, planning, debating and collaboration.

Of course, this collaboration might not necessarily take place face-to-face. As in so many areas of daily life, the internet has enabled communication to occur far more seamlessly than before, with email, video conferencing and collaborative tools such as Google Docs allowing teams to work together from anywhere, and to more easily merge their ideas together.

Therefore, as well as devoting time to learning fundamental concepts and ideas which broaden a student's mind and strengthen their skillset, I hope to see education better embrace group work as preparation for the reality of today's workforce.

Schools often sell themselves on the idea of developing a well-rounded student, imbued with the necessary social and intellectual skills to succeed in later life. But in my experience, particularly at high school, it is still very much about the individual and their ability to meet the grade. It's much less so their ability to effectively communicate, share and contribute in a group setting. I hope that, by using the tools at our disposal and rethinking our attitude towards education, we can actually begin to deliver on that age-old promise of the well-rounded young person.


Immersive is a broad stroke of a word, and one that is usually more apt when describing video games than humdrum classroom learning. But maybe the education system has a thing or two to learn from the world of video games, in all of their addictive, multi-sensory glory. The idea of offering rewards for completing challenges and enabling students to compete with others in real time, are two oft-mooted techniques borrowed from the world of video games that have been shown to motivate students in their learning.

But even more broadly than that, an immersive education, as I see it, is one in which students are exposed to more than just the textbook or lectures, but a greater range of media. Videos, quizzes and interactive models, in addition to text and practical assignments, can together act to reinforce the neural pathways that enable students to acquire new understanding.

The Human Element

Up until now, you might be thinking that this all sounds rather idealistic and reliant on unproven technologies. After all, if the early experiences of Moocs tell us anything, it is that a physical classroom, facilitated by a personable and knowledgeable teacher, are two essential components for an effective education. The ideas described above, therefore, should only ever empower the teacher to have an even more positive effect on their students' learning than they do today.

By using the vast amount of information that the internet already provides, we could see the teacher become less of a conduit of information and more a coach or mentor, actively identifying and addressing the needs of the individual in a way that is not presently possible. As curators, teachers could also work to incrementally improve the platform so that the information and interface are always improving, in line with the goals of a 21st Century society.

Focussing on what really matters

The discussion around technology in education can be overwhelming. There are so many tools for every task. The pace of change is often so rapid that implementing something new in even a small school must be a daunting and risky prospect. Acknowledging that there is no silver bullet for the future of education, and considering the overwhelming number of different tools and techniques available, I believe that we should begin to focus the conversation less on whether Moocs, tablets or BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) are the way of the future, and more on the core principles and objectives that we want our education system to achieve.

Daniel Coats is a student at Burnside High School in Christchurch.


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Ron Segal 14 February 2014, 1:19 pm

Daniel, thanks, excellent discussion. I hadn't heard of MOOCs, but have had a feeling for a while that the kind of free, advanced, on-line courses now available could herald a revolution. Unfortunately giving these kinds of potentially disruptive 'innovations' a fancy name, then raising expectations to ridiculous 'rock star status' can tend to kill them (Big Data, yeah right).

Assuming that there is a (somewhat softer) revolution. I wonder though whether part of the implications is that 'bricks and mortar' university courses will revert to a focus on 'learning how to learn', with the actual learning (the vocational etc stuff) largely being done externally.

There is also of course the issue of robust assessment and certification. Else I might be a little worried about undergoing surgery performed by an on-line graduate!

Best wishes, Ron

James Kalmakoff 16 February 2014, 10:05 pm

Asking universities to support MOOC's is like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.

However the Ivy-league universities and their pretenders may not be the ones that decide if MOOCs will be successful or not.

I think the most important issue about MOOCs is accreditation -- what is the value of a Certificate of Completion? Universities hold the monopoly on issuing degrees. This may not be so important in the future when a student may be able to show a potential employer an online portfolio of courses and work that they have completed which maybe contain a mix of university courses, research carried out, articles published online, MOOC certificates and testimonials from previous employers. This could be on their own website that allows for public scrutiny and authentication. For more reference material and a TED presentation by Anant Agarwal, see the blog at:

PS for Ron Segal -- too late to worry, the future best surgeons are probably being trained by on-line simulations as we speak!!

Diane McCarthy 17 February 2014, 3:43 pm

Thanks Daniel. A great essay on a relevant topic. At CPIT, in the Deapartment of Computing, we integrate video into lectures, have conversations about readings, Skype guest lecturers from IT companies, use reflective journals through Mahara and communicate through Moodle, and immerse ourselves in workplace cultures of web development companies, like Hairy Lemon, game makers, database makers such as Orion, and IT support franchaises like Code Blue. This is 21st Century facilitated learning, which is student driven. Polytechnic Institutes of Technology (ITPs) do this on tight budgets that are focused on effective outcomes (80% pass rates are usual rather than rare).

One last thing- do learn to reference according to a referencing system such as APA- it lends more authority to your excellent work.

Cheers and best wishes Diane McCarthy Senior Lecturer and Course Facilitator, BCIS206 Professional Practice for the BICT degree.

Diane McCarthy 17 February 2014, 3:44 pm

OOPPS a typo. I meant Department of Computing. Make that a FAIL!

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