7 Common Mistakes About Open Online Education

How and why the MOOC movement is misunderstood.

July 21, 2015

Here are my top 7 mistakes that pundits and critics make when they talk about open online education:

Mistake #1:  "Open Online Courses Are a Substitute for Traditional Courses"
Higher order learning is an activity that cannot be scaled. Foundational knowledge may be appropriate for a MOOC (or a textbook, or even a really well-designed educational video game), but advanced learning works best with an educator.
The skills that are most valuable for both personal growth and for employment are those best practiced in the context of a relationship with an educator.  These skills include critical thinking, judgement, the ability to synthesize large amounts of information, and a facility in making persuasive arguments using evidence.  
Mistake #2:  "MOOCs Are Synonymous with Online Education"
The online thing that traditional online education and open online education have in common is that both are done at a distance. MOOCs are all about scale and access. Traditional online education (when done well) is all about intimacy and quality. A traditional online course is built around the presence and connections of a small cohort of learners, all being led by an experienced and skilled educator.   
Developing MOOCs may help schools build technical capacity in traditional online education, as many of the same learning design and educational media principals apply.  But these are fundamentally different educational activities, and should never be confused as sharing goals, methods, or lessons.
Mistake #3:  "Open Online Education Will Drive Down the Cost of Education"
What open online education is doing is pushing colleges and universities to ensure that our traditional educational offerings are truly valuable. Any school that offers traditional courses (be these courses residential, online, or blended) that are no better than what can be had online and for free will be in deep trouble. 
It is not clear how this push to quality will impact educational costs. In some cases, MOOCs will drive up the cost of traditional education because creating quality educational opportunities is expensive. The large enrollment lecture course was always more about cost sharing than pedagogy. The days of big classes paying for small classes are over.  Every class offered at a fee will need to offer real value. 
Mistake #4:  "Open Online Education Threatens Traditional Residential Based Education"
If you are involved in open online education (participating, building, teaching), you quickly realize that what MOOCs do best is illuminate the strengths of traditional higher education. Of course, MOOCs also shine a light on the deficiencies of any educational model built on a transmission of information model of teaching. 
What is most valuable about a good college or university education, and what MOOCs will never deliver, is the learning that occurs in the context of a relationship between an educator and a student. Higher order learning requires mentorship, guidance, expertise, and experience. MOOCs will eventually do a wonderful job of raising the floor for where higher education should begin. MOOCs reveal how a quality college education is more valuable, not less.
Mistake #5:  "MOOCs are Prohibitively Expensive to Produce"
The super secret thing about MOOCs is that they are they offer an  amazing value for their sponsoring institutions. The people making and teaching the MOOCs are doing so out of love. They are creating art. And like most art, it doesn’t pay all that well. Every open online education team that I know works an enormous number of hours to develop and teach their open online courses. They do so because they love what they are teaching. They do so because they love their schools, and they want to show the world some of what goes on on our campuses.
The faculty and non-faculty educators who are putting together and teaching the MOOCs are internally motivated.  They want to connect with lifelong learners.  They want to be in the conversation with how teaching and learning is changing.   Every dollar that a school spends to support these creative educational teams is returned many times over in outreach, excitement, and institutional learning that these teams bring to our campuses.  
Mistake #6:  "Open Online Education Is A Fad"
Open online education is becoming embedded in the fabric of our teaching and learning operations and culture. Schools will keep creating and teaching open online courses because we derive tremendous value from the experience.  
Creating and teaching MOOCs gives us the opportunity to engage in disciplined experiments in teaching and learning. We can try new things out because the stakes are low.  It turns out that free and open can be liberating for the provider as well as the consumer.
Mistake #7: "MOOCs Will Not Change the Higher Ed Status Quo"
The big higher ed story that nobody seems to be telling is just how much better colleges and universities are getting. Where everyone is focused on climbing walls and lazy rivers, the real story is improved learning. Visit any campus and you are bound to see experiments going on that are designed to improve learning. The most exciting work is in the redesign of large classes, and the move to offer blended and online degrees for graduate (mostly professional) students.  
There is huge excitement on our campuses about the research in how people learn, in new methods to improve learning, in the use of data to bring evidence to our teaching designs, and in new technologies to support teaching. The scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) is taking off in a big way. Learning is hot. Educators are cool. And MOOCs deserve some of the credit.
The hype around MOOCs played the same role as the dot com bubble.  MOOCs helped lay the groundwork for a sustained conversation about how people learn and how we teach.  The excitement about MOOCs was never justified. But the excitement around learning was and is. Every college and university is working to make sure that the classes offered on campus offer greater value than what can be had online and for free. Methods and practices around residential education are being reexamined and rethought. Learning is understood as a competitive institutional differentiator.
What mistakes do you see being made when pundits and critics talk about open online education?


Back to Top