The Renewable Resources Report

On “Massive Open Online Courses”

On MOOCs appears in Volume 29 No. 4 of the Renewable Resources Journal (RRJ), available for free download. MOOCs are massive online open courses, initiated by leading universities with the goal of providing high-quality educational experiences, either for free or for a nominal fee. The rise of MOOCs begs a rethinking of the strengths and weaknesses of traditional undergraduate education, as well as how best to incorporate the technology of online learning. Advocates claim that MOOCs dramatically expand access to high-quality instruction by significantly cutting the costs of a postsecondary education. However, this type of online learning platform also has several weaknesses, as discussed in this article.

The article defines the characteristics of the “ideal MOOC” before subjecting it to critique:

  • Lecture video clips are available online anytime, anywhere.
  • Students benefit from instant feedback on exercises, opportunities to redo their work, and peer evaluation.
  • A self-directed discussion forum engages students with one another.
  • Flexibility in start date frees the courses and students from seasonal constraints.
  • There is no need of faculty or staff to intervene.



MOOCs are not tailored to the individual student and cannot accommodate face-to-face interaction between student and teacher. The primary mode of communication in an online course is through a discussion forum, which offers the opportunity for student-initiated questions and commentary. However, this discussion is, at best, a weak imitation of what is encouraged in a traditional classroom. Early data shows that only about 3% of total registrants actively participate in discussion forums. The dearth of faculty/staff intervention also undermines valuable prompting, oversight, and monitoring of productive conversations.

MOOCs treat knowledge as information simply to be conveyed from teacher to student. Science and engineering knowledge is deceptively well suited to being taught via an online platform. However, even science and engineering questions rarely have a single correct answer, as online exercises seem to imply. Textbook science and engineering theories, concepts, and methods are not fixed or beyond questioning, a nuance that may not be appreciated through an online learning platform. Faculty and students who see learning as an interactive process will not find MOOC’s very attractive.

MOOCs rely on very constrained forms of exercises to engage students and assess their performance. One supposed advantage of the ideal MOOC is the ability to provide instant feedback to a student’s submission of a solution to a problem. However, this does not allow for individualized feedback, in which an instructor or teaching assistant can read through and evaluate a student’s work.

There is very little information about how independently developed courses relate or might be combined to constitute a coherent program. One can imagine how a set of MOOCs, chosen from the offerings of several prestigious universities, might be strung together on paper for degree certification. However, this falls far short of the traditional learning experience at a university. A patchwork of courses does not create a coherent program. Course content is only a small contributor to the growth that students experience as undergraduates. Other learning experiences may include project-based learning, collaborative design tasks, public service, study abroad, research opportunities, and substantial advising.

MOOCs may be problematic if incorporated into the larger educational system. Faculty who are urged or required to adopt a MOOC in their own teaching may see it as a deficiency and a constraint on learning. Knowledge and paths to knowing are not the sole property of a single scholar – there are other narratives, priorities, and approaches to the subject matter. A series of pre-recorded videos may limit professors’ teaching as well as their students’ learning experience.


Two Disparate Audiences

The critiques presented in this article are primarily towards the idea of MOOCs as a substitute for an undergraduate education. However, a look at registrants shows that online courses actually attract a wide variety of students. The majority have already obtained at least a bachelor’s degree. And while a significant fraction are university-age students, only a small percentage of this group actually gain certification for the courses they take. As the article puts it, “On the one hand are the mercurial youth of university age seeking academic credit, and on the other are self-motivated, mature, older individuals who perhaps care less about certification.

For mature individuals who participate in online courses to enhance their job skills, the ideal MOOC may work just fine in its current form. For those who register simply out of curiosity or to learn, however, the intensity of the ideal MOOC can be relaxed. These registrants should be permitted to participate to whatever extent accords with their interests.

The main business of universities, however, is to educate youth. For this, the article argues, passive viewing of even an enlightening digital production will not suffice. A university education requires individualized attention from professors, not simply information transfer. For the purposes of educating youth, the rhetoric must shift from promoting the MOOC as a professionally packaged, finished product to a collection of well-thought-out bits of content, and a flexible, adaptable technology for engaging faculty and students.

To read in more detail, download Volume 29 No. 3 of the Renewable Resources Journal.

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