Some unexplored effects of MOOCs in the long-term

There is currently lots of thinking going on about the implications of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)–courses that are free online and enroll tens of thousands of students at a time from all over the world:  How will these affect traditional colleges and universities? Will students still be willing to pay (lots) of money to go to college? What will happen when incoming freshman arrive having already taken numerous MOOCs? etc.

These questions are already being deeply explored by a large number of people and organizations.

However, there is a class of questions that is equally interesting, but not receiving nearly as much attention: how will instructors of MOOCs and instructors of non-MOOCs  alter their courses as a result of themselves having access to MOOCs and thereby being able to view courses taught by other professors?


It is a widely agreed upon principle that to improve at something, it is extremely helpful to receive ongoing, constructive feedback from others about the effectiveness of the work and with ideas for how to improve.

Last year, as a first-year 7th grade math teacher, there was no easy way for me to get feedback on my teaching from my colleagues and supervisors besides the time-intensive and labor-intensive process of having an administrator or teacher-mentor sit in my classroom for a period.

This couldn’t possibly happen often enough (they have lots of other important responsibilities) and when it did happen, they were only able to see a quick snapshot of my class for one particular lesson, so they didn’t have enough information to be able to provide useful feedback regarding what I may have done well (or poorly) during weeks of previous lessons which may have led to any of the good or bad aspects of student learning or classroom culture that were visible on that particular day.

In fact, only rarely did a teacher who was teaching the exact same subject observe my class or did I observe the class of another teacher. For any particular lesson, someone else may have been doing something subtly different (or very clearly different) that was altering the effectiveness of the lesson, but I could never know because I wasn’t there.

Certainly, we often planned lessons together, but, as everyone knows, two different teachers who are teaching a lesson that is supposedly similar can end up with very different outcomes.

Lots of data

However, instructors of courses such as MOOCs, for whom 100% of the course is captured digitally, are not constrained by this. They, or anyone else, can always look back and explore in great detail exactly what they did pedagogically and exactly how students responded.

I have seen some discussion of how data from MOOCs can provide some insight into the effectiveness of various teaching strategies: see exactly what the teacher did, see exactly how the students responded, and draw some conclusions. I have even seen some discussion of the intriguing idea of testing different teaching strategies in different sections of the same MOOC and comparing the results: A/B testing for teachers!

However, there is a whole class of questions about the effects MOOCs may have on other faculty members (and their courses) which I have not yet seen any discussion of.

New questions

Feedback and the ability to observe other faculty members’ courses:

  1. To what extent will faculty members who teach non-MOOC courses view and participate in similar courses offered as MOOCs led by faculty at other universities?
  2. How will faculty members who teach MOOCs use the easy access to the entire course to solicit feedback from colleagues and students?
  3. If Instructor A views the MOOCs led by Instructor B, what impact will this have on Instructor A’s OWN courses (traditional or MOOC)?
  4. As instructors who lead MOOCs get feedback (and adjust their courses accordingly) while other instructors see what is happening in the MOOCs (and adjust their courses–traditional or MOOC)–based on what they see, how will this change the content/pedagogy/structure of both MOOCs and traditional courses in the long-run?
  5. When comparing courses (say, Calc I) across different universities, how will the fact that all faculty have the ability to view several Calc I MOOCs, cause certain aspects of the courses’ content/pedagogy/structure to….
  • CONVERGE? For example, when one instructor uses an excellent demo or example in a MOOC, will other faculty adopt a similar technique in their classes?
  • DIVERGE?  Since faculty probably have a desire (and incentive) to make their courses distinctive and unique, once something starts being presented a certain way in MOOCs, will faculty change their instruction to make it different than the “free version” online?

Historical pedagogical trends:

6. All courses change in content/pedagogy/structure over time. Modern MOOCs provide a detailed record of exactly what material was presented, exactly how it was presented, and exactly how particular students responded to that material. This is extremely useful information now due to the ability of researchers to learn more about how students in these courses learn (see above).

However, this record will also provide an interesting historical snapshot of current courses. In 50 years, someone can look back and explore how these courses were taught in 2013.

Wouldn’t it be cool to look back at a Math or English Lit course that took place 10 or 50 or 100 years ago and see how it worked back then? What about a course in Psychology, Computer Science, or Biology?

10 and 50 and 100 years from now, people will be able to look back on contemporary MOOCs and explore how these courses look right now and see how they will have changed over time, which I imagine will lead to some fascinating results.

Certainly, MOOCs don’t offer a comprehensive snapshot of all teaching and learning that goes on in Universities, but they provide much more extensive and detailed information about this particular subset of higher education than possibly could have existed before.

I am very curious to see how the existence of MOOCs affects courses on similar topics elsewhere.

How will this all play out?

Is anyone aware of any work that is currently being done to explore any of the questions posed above? (Particularly #4 and #5–how will all courses on a particular subject change as a result of the availability of MOOCs?)

Update:  Ryan Tracey has a good list of potential implications of the current growth of MOOCs available here.

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6 Responses to Some unexplored effects of MOOCs in the long-term

  1. Irenee says:

    A very enjoyable rant. But sadly it oeucsrbs the validity of the central point. Opening access to knowledge and knowledge networks is a good things. In fact, I have often pointed out that the only educational reforms to ever succeed were ones of open access (Chinese imperial examinations, universal primary education, GI bill). But their successes were not educational but political. They opened up opportunities for engagement and discursive legitimacy for more people than had them before. There is no straightforward utilitarian link between access and success. The argument is and should be a moral one.So while MOOCs are kind of fun pedagogically their potential for transformative change is in widening access to increasingly (financially) inaccessible institutions. This not going to be a neat process (sorry, but quality has nothing to do with any of this). And this access will change the institutions (as much as those accessing them). And that’s a good thing. They wouldn’t pose an existential threat to existing institutions until a new generation of employers would start saying, show me your MOOC portfolio. But by then the existing institutions would be different enough to either be irrelevant already or be ready to provide the version of the MOOC of that time.So are MOOCs the same as old time correspondence courses? Yes and no. Contrary to the popular definition of madness, if you try often enough to do the same thing over and over again, maybe you’re eventually do it differently enough or in a different enough context that you will finally get a different result. It’s not guaranteed (like monkeys typing Shakespeare), but it’s possible. The example is educational video. It kept failing and failing for more than half a century until YouTube and Skype came along. And lo and behold. I’m learning as much from videos as I used to do from books. So MOOCs have a chance to be different from correspondence courses because of their scale, the technology available and slightly different metaphors. But, they could just as easily fail. Only time will tell.


  2. Prabhuram says:

    A satisfying rant and I can only agree on the mysrtey of why for-profit publishers have cornered the journals market and make a mint selling us our own volunteer work though much more in the sciences than humanities, in truth. Most humanities journals still run on the old volunteer basis, with modest institutional support (always in greater danger), though the big ones e.g. AHR obviously have professionalized, though to no great value to the profession, it seems to me in that case (aside from running a lot of reviews).But the case for self-created software environments is a little trickier. I work at a university with a great, entrepreneurial IT staff who have thrown a lot of energy into various custom’ applications for administrative functions and into customizing Blackboard for our use. And though I respect and support their work, I have to say their custom’ applications (for things like graduate admissions [working pretty well] and academic personnel [a wrongheaded disaster in every way]) are rarely as polished as commercial software. Designing good complex environments is really hard, and requires not only substantial resources and a long wait from investment to return, but also years of iterations that (if those doing the work are competent and properly managed) make the environment better over time.The challenges are great. Blackboard is certainly not ideal, and their habit of changing interfaces every 3-4 years, just as 1,000s of professors had finally figured out how to use the existing interface puts them up with Microsoft on my hate-list, but on the whole, they system now is smooth and doesn’t have the quirks and balks that our homegrown software has, even at its best. Sadly, I’m skeptical about the ability of loose, non-profit and ad hoc coalitions of complicated institutions to have both the skills, the capital and the stamina to produce high quality online systems, at least for now. But open source journals and avoiding sharks like Elsevier, Kluwer, and Springer: absolutely! Guest editing a special issue of a journal recently with one of these companies was a nightmare, including typesetting by diligent but poorly informed Sinhalese typesetters that rendered dates as numbers. Did you know that the American Revolution began in 1,776? Oy!


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