Question of the Week: MOOCs

There is a lot of talk (and a range of opinions) in higher ed about the impact of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on traditional education.  In what ways, if at all, might MOOCs impact how we teach at Bellevue College? [Use the speech bubble to the right or the reply link below to respond]

Please feel free to think of this question in terms of the college as a whole, as well as in relationship to your own discipline, expertise, or experience.

There are a lot of “opinions” out there on this topic.  Here are a couple recent articles to get folks thinking. Feel free to share other good resources on this topic in the comments box, too.


8 thoughts on “Question of the Week: MOOCs

  1. The expansion of specialized, accredited online instruction will make our online efforts unsustainable. Higher Ed is becoming more of a free and open market, in which organizations must specialize and differentiate in order to survive. We must choose between serving our local community through on-ground instruction or a broader one via online. Continuing to split our resources between the two guarantees our eventual demise.

  2. The completion rates of MOOC’s are dismally low, and the quality is pretty horrible from what I’ve seen. So I don’t see them replacing smaller, instructor led online courses anytime soon. There is the possibility of using MOOCs as part of in-person “flipped classroom” efforts: having students watch videos from a MOOC at home and then coming to class prepared to discuss/do problems/do labwork/etc. You could also use MOOC material as part of the module material in an online course: but you still need an instructor to organize, grade, provide feedback, etc.

  3. I think it would be a mistake to ignore the impact of MOOCs, since these courses are inexpensive, flexible, and in increasing instances becoming accredited. I’m currently taking a series of online courses through, where some of the top experts in digital media technologies teach well crafted courses based on the latest software. That said, we shouldn’t ignore our strengths as a “brick and mortar” institution. Much of my own learning on campus has been based on relationships with students and other faculty. We can’t compete with MOOCs on their terms, but we can on our own – and augment our strengths through having a robust online presence. As Amanda says, we can make use of the MOOCs as an augmentation or supplement to our teaching – like a 21st century textbook.

  4. MOOCs: A Potential Problem for Bellevue College Customers

    The MOOC is a fascinating and potentially powerful idea for a self-motivated and mature student (I’m thinking graduate students or post-doctoral students). However, I find the articles referenced for this week’s discussion disturbing from a couple of angles, but particularly the Henry Lucas article. Professor Lucas states that he “believes that MOOCs have great potential,” yet by his own admission out of the 16,000 people who started the course, only 600 – 700 completed the final term project – a 4.4% completion rate. Despite this issues, Professor Lucas goes on to exhort all of academia, to stay competitive and affordable in this brave new electronic world, to immediately implement MOOCs.
    I was the first instructor at Bellevue College to create an online English 201 class thirteen years ago. I routinely teach hybrid and online classes. I have a little familiarity with MOOCs, though I do not claim to be a scholar in the topic.
    Given my background and my own studies into how I can best motivate my students, both live and in the electronic classrooms, I believe we would be doing our students a disservice by implementing this loose, collaborative style of learning. The MOOC would not provide what motivational research suggests is necessary for the type of learners that Bellevue College serves.
    In short, we would not be providing the product that our customers need to truly succeed because the MOOC does not provide what young, developing, and special needs brains require to learn self-motivation.
    My thesis is premised upon these assumptions:
    1) Students do not fail or struggle because they are unintelligent or lazy;
    2) Students struggle to motivate themselves to do the work a class requires because of inexperience and/or lack of time; and
    3) Students need multiple “hits” of dopamine to help them learn how to learn with the many distractions our modern world places in front of them.
    MOOC Success Rates
    I have not done extensive research on MOOCs, but after scanning the Web for articles on completion rates and outcomes, I found that sources generally agree that completion rates are as low as 10%. In September of 2013, Time Magazine published what seemed to me to be a thorough, thoughtful, and easy to assimilate article that discussed the potential problems of MOOCs (
    One of the main problems with the MOOC, John Marcus (author of the Time article) suggests is that they are not offered for credit. Thus, this motivation to complete the courses is lacking, which creates a situation where the MOOC cannot be fairly compared to paid-for for-credit classes, or so the MOOC supporters like Professor Lucas argue.
    To try to predict the potential pedagogical usefulness of for-credit MOOCs, educators interested in trying to predict whether a for-credit MOOC would be successful have been studying for credit online classrooms (tuition paid and limited enrollment in platforms like Canvas). Marcus documents that the Teachers College compared regular community college online classrooms in Washington state and Virginia. The results of this study are that live classrooms have higher completion and retention rates.
    The good news is that while our online completion and retention rates here are lower than for our live classes, we beat Virginia’s programs with a score of 18% non-completion for online / 10% non-completion for live. Virginia came in with 32% non-completion for online / 19% non-completion for traditional classroom (Marcus). (Go Washington State!)
    One conclusion that may be drawn from the Teachers College study is that the lack of human contact is part of the reason the online student is more likely to not succeed. I will discuss what I believe the reason for this is in more detail below, in the section labeled Physiology of Learning Motivation.
    Additionally, Marcus noted that universities that are attempting to implement MOOCs-for-credit are finding the programs are not working as well as hoped for:
    “In July, San Jose State University suspended its experiment with offering MOOCs for credit after only half of credit-seeking students who took the online courses passed, compared to three-quarters of those who took the traditional versions. In one of the three pilot classes, which were offered during the spring, fewer than 30 percent of the online students passed. And while the university and its partners hailed an apparently dramatic improvement in results in the summer semester, a closer look showed that more than half of the summer students already had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to none of the students who took online courses in the spring—and even then, more of the summer registrants dropped out.” (quot’d in Marcus)
    Based upon the success rates for traditional online classes and the San Jose University experiment, I believe that using our limited funds to create a for-credit MOOC at Bellevue College would not serve our student’s needs and would not be a good use of money that could be spent on other more effective programs (including funding efforts to improve the quality of existing online and hybrid programs).
    I believe this based upon my personal studies into how I can improve my student’s motivation to learn. My studies have led me to the physiology of motivation and to methodologies that seem to promote better learning.
    Physiology of Learning Motivation – The Dopamine Hit
    My teaching style has been greatly influenced by my understanding of how dopamine and other brain chemicals are likely linked to our ability to motivate ourselves to learn. One article that I have found particularly helpful is “The Cognitive Science of Motivation and Learning” by Nathaniel Daw and Daphna Shohamy (Social Cognition, Vol. 26, No. 5, 2008, pp. 593–620 —
    In short, Daw and Shohamy propose is that for people to be motivated to learn, they need “brief, tightly timed phasic events riding atop a baseline activity level” (596). These events help student’s brains produce dopamine, which rewards the mid-brain regions and assists in creating a future motivation to engage in learning – because dopamine controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers – it is one of the “feels-really-good” brain neurotransmitters.
    Based upon this information, I attempt to teach in a way that maximizes my student’s ability to produce dopamine so they want to keep trying to learn to write. I do this by creating many small, quickly graded writing assignments that lead up to larger papers.
    These small graded events allow me to reward my students (credit, no credit) quickly for each phase of the writing process – and this (hopefully) is creating more dopamine in their brains so they want to keep moving on to the next step towards that larger paper. This type of teaching has been studied from a behavioral standpoint and found to be successful.
    “More Testing, More Learning” (Title taken from a student essay in the St. Martin’s Guide to Writing, 10th Edition, written by Jessica Statsky)
    I (and the student author who has greatly influenced my teaching style) have found numerous articles relating to how frequent testing increases student’s motivation to learn. Additionally, frequent testing (as opposed to the “midterm and final” model), has a statistically higher impact on lower level learners (C and below students). Here is one of many studies on this topic that you might find interesting reading:
    I believe that this is true (and will continue to prove true) because of the dopamine and other “feel-good” brain neurotransmitters connection to learning motivation. Frequent tests allow for small, easier to accomplish tasks that increase the likelihood of success (and that means more dopamine gets released, which increases the person’s desire to have another positive learning experience to get that dopamine hit).
    How MOOCs Could Inhibit Dopamine Production in Younger or Special Needs Learners
    I am not necessarily against MOOCs. The idea of all that free information is fascinating to me.
    But what I remain deeply concerned with is how to design such a large, amorphous network of information into a learning classroom that will not frustrate my customers (typically young, still developing brains, often with non-apparent disabilities and/or language acquisition challenges). Frankly, I can’t see how to make that chaotic MOOC work – I am still trying to get my online classrooms to have just the right pacing of rewards so my students stay with my class.
    Another article that everyone might find interesting in this discussion is found in the Learning Solutions Magazine here:
    What I found helpful about this article was its comparison of the psychology that online gaming developers apply to the online learning classroom:
    “Arguably the most critical activity in the game design process is tuning. Game tuning is the act of testing, analyzing, and revising all aspects of the game to achieve a gaming experience that meets its intended purpose and objectives. An indicator of a well-tuned game is the “right” pacing of dopamine squirts that a player experiences while playing the game: when a game is perceived as overly easy and therefore uninteresting, the dopamine stops flowing and the player stops playing; when the game is too hard and frustrating, the dopamine flow is intermittent and unsatisfying. Balance the player experience of tension and relief, and players will play and re-play the game to feed their desire for the pleasure of the squirt.”
    As I think of the MOOC and compare it to the online massive role-playing games, I see some striking differences that lead me to suspect that there will be great difficulties creating a MOOC that will give my classroom customers (Bellevue College students) the right pacing of dopamine to keep them motivated to learn.
    The differences are:
    • The online game is colorful, visually stimulating, and animated
    • The online game does not allow for complete failure – the pacing of the levels players engage in ensures this (as does the inevitable resurrection of the person’s avatar)
    • The game does not attempt to teach anything – it is pure entertainment, so the inevitable drudgery (and moderate boredom) of having to learn something is absent from the gaming environment
    So, for my online and live classes, what I have to do to get my students their hits of dopamine is convince them that:
    1) They can accomplish that big, hairy research paper by breaking it down into manageable tasks;
    2) The ability to research gives them the power to succeed in their goals and dreams; and
    3) That the acquisition of knowledge is fun.
    I find that this takes my giving each student a personal touch, either through electronic correspondence or personal attention in class. I am not sure that the MOOC will allow for this, since it will rely on so many other lecturers and loose pathways to learning. I don’t know how I would use a MOOC without turning it back into a regular online classroom, so I could retain that close personal touch with each of my students – that touch that I believe (and hope) will give them the dopamine hit they need to do the work for the course.
    Here is a course website that summarizes the brain chemicals and, down at the bottom, notes some of the research suggesting that the release of dopamine actually requires physical touch or some strongly individualized form of attention:
    And from my own personal experiences, sometimes what I need the most is a quick hug or a verbal pat on the back.

  5. Here are some scattered thoughts about MOOCs:

    Because we are an open access institution, I believe that we cannot ignore developments in distance learning occurring in higher education. To provide access for our student one of our primary objectives, and distance learning (now digital learning, it seems), is a portion of what that looks like. However, we need to ensure students are aware of what may be the best fit for them:

    Admittedly, MOOCs do have a very low completion rate, and succeeding in an online class, much less a MOOC requires a very certain kind of learner. Making students aware of their learning style, and guiding (read: advising) them toward classes and experiences that will maximize their learning is an important thing we should do.

  6. MOOC Cons
    1. Basically lecture capture which is the least effective form of teaching
    2. Has been attracting large amounts of funding to distribute providing branding/marketing for the elite institutions (to students around the world) that produce them (I’m sure they’re laughing all the way to the bank)
    3.In its current form probably a really bad idea for our students (See SJSU)

    MOOC Pros
    I always saw MOOCs as for educators rather than students. I feel like I’m at a candy store when I see the list of courses. I want to try everything. I’ve tried Old Testament religious studies, political philosophy, a philosophy course on death, psychology, Roman architecture, Shiller’s finance course, Geanakoplos’ financial theory class, all from Yale, gamification from Wharton, public speaking from UW, jazz improvisation, song writing (both from Berklee School of Music and these are taken several times by the students). I’ve looked at how elegant stats exams are at MIT when they give only a set of 5 data points and then ask the student to do all the statistical analysis they should. Engaging in MOOCs helps me understand the scaffolding of other disciplines, break down the silos, and I steal shamelessly from their material. I also appreciate the passion these professors have for their topic and how much I love to learn myself.

  7. I agree that because the MOOCs are non-credit and require no financial investment, the motivation to finish a class is diminished. But those factors also take the pressure off, particularly because the classes can easily be retaken. It is a different culture than traditional online-for-credit classes because the motivation is entirely to learn and not to acquire credits. Like Leslie Lum, I can speak to MOOCs from the student perspective. I feel tremendously blessed that MOOCs are being offered and feel that the courses I have taken have really enriched my life. The professors were outstanding and the videos well done. To date I have taken three classes: Aboriginal World Views and Education from the University of Toronto, Songwriting from Berklee, and Social Psychology from Wesleyan University, but expect to take many more. I look forward to a lifetime of learning from MOOCS that will broaden my knowledge, answer my curiosity about many things, and expose me to topics I never knew existed, and from classes that I do not need to complete a degree. But there is a downside to MOOCs that I have not heard addressed here. The most important is the dependence the student has on technology. Of the three classes I have taken, two of them presented technology problems for me. The first was resolved in a few days and I was able to exchange e-mails with a TA until the issue was resolved, and I was able to catch up with the work and finish the class. The second was a frustrating experience of having my quiz refuse to save even after repeated attempts. Furthermore, the system would not allow me to proceed to the next lecture until the system was able to save the quiz. I was never able to have a personal connection to a TA or tech person and had to throw in the towel on completing the class assignments and so I am probably among the statistics as someone who didn’t complete the class. The deadlines were long since passed before I was eventually able to hear all the lectures and read the additional material. One day the restriction miraculously disappeared and I can only guess that my problem was not unique and they were flooded with requests for tech support on that issue. That class had 31,000 students, an unmanageable sum to deal with if many students have diverse technical issues. While part of the joy of MOOCs classes is interacting with other students from all over the world, that enormous class size can interfere with the class forming any sense of solidarity such as I have experienced with many of the online classes I have taken at Bellevue College.

  8. I HATE MOOCs. They are so impersonal. Too abstract. I like the SOCIAL aspect of college– of coming to a particular meeting place to discuss cool stuff with real, physical people. THAT is what Bellevue College ALREADY succeeds with. Let other colleges do MOOCs. They can have them.

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