In many ways, MOOCs (massively open online courses) are not new. When introduced in 2008, they were seen as extensions of the existing distance learning model (which itself had evolved from correspondence to radio to closed-circuit television broadcasts) to the internet. But then it became something else: a way to extend the university itself to anyone in the world with an internet connection.

The idea was tried by many universities over the next few years, and became wildly popular when it teamed up with the OER (open educational resources) movement, which added the idea that the MOOC should be free for anyone to take. In 2011 the first MOOC organizations (Udacity, Coursera) appeared. In 2012, the New York Times declared the Year of the MOOC, and one year later, the Times declared MOOCs to be failures. But not everyone agrees with the Times. In December 2014, an MIT Technology Review article asked What are MOOCs good for? . So who’s right? Are MOOCs a superior educational experience that allows the students to learn from the best instructors, or just another over-enthusiastic technology application?

I’ve taken several courses through Coursera, one of the major MOOC platforms, and have heard many of the standard complaints. Non-completion rates as high as 96% wasted the time of serious students. Instructors who acted as though their university were forcing them to make their courses available to the unwashed masses, and instructors who did not seem to acknowledge that anyone was outside their classrooms at all. Assignments made on the premise that the student had no responsibilities other than the course (honestly, 8 short stories and 2 novels in one week?).

But I’ve also seen some genuine innovation in teaching: science courses that brought current field research into class in an easy and seamless way, and comparative literature taught through video games. So are MOOCs really a failed form, or can we learn from these issues to continue this experiment in genuine adult education?

The first rule of communication is “know thy audience”, and this is where I believe many MOOCs have disappointed. When first proposed, MOOCs were intended to provide college-level courses to the masses for free. I won’t comment on the “for free” part, because while producing a MOOC isn’t free, the business model that allows students to take the courses is still very much unresolved.

Once a MOOC is released into the wild, however, anyone and everyone can sign up for it. The model intended for college students becomes a learning resource for everyone. This has led to some interesting, although probably predictable, results. Huge numbers of people sign up for courses, but those who complete the course (the common measure of success) are typically self-motivated, interactive, diligent, and disciplined. So in one respect, the initial audience analysis for MOOCs is spot-on: successful students are those who would be successful on-campus college students. But who are the rest of the audience, and why are they not successful?

Well, most of them are adult learners. The difference between the two is a matter of focus and experience: adult learners generally have more experience to draw upon, and less time to focus on learning than the traditional 18-22 year old college student. Adult learners may not be looking for a college credential – they may be looking for a resource or to learn something interesting and new. Non-native language speakers may be looking for a way to practice English composition (this was the case in the literature courses). Others take courses to try out new skills and career options. So for these learners, the credential is not the goal – it’s the content. But the content is not organized for those audiences.

Other people simply may not learn well in the traditional academic structure. Maybe they are night owls, or learn experientially rather than by reading or listening. They may succeed in learning the content, but fail at the course. The content is in most cases not organized for those audiences either.

Still others do not have the time to devote to a traditional course (the literature course that took 15+ hours a week). For them the traditional structure may be appropriate, but not the deadlines.

The basic idea of the MOOC is a good one – providing access to learning for everyone. However, developing courses with audiences other than the college student in mind will make it more successful. Here are my suggestions, for what they are worth.

Keep the college courses.
Even if it’s only 4% of the total population, traditional college students are an important audience for MOOCs, and will help universities broaden their total audience.

Develop for adult learners. Designing for adult learners is different from designing for college students, but it will be worth the effort to address the audience of non-degree-seeking learners.

Hands-on and group learning. Some audiences require group discussion and / or hands-on projects to complete in order to master a subject. Book club members already understand this concept, and a growing number of researchers are finding that science is often better when people share data and discuss findings.

Abolish the semester. To address the student’s lack of time, courses could be offered with a six-month or one-year deadline instead of the typical 10-12 weeks. This is tougher than it appears, as the support system for a MOOC includes interacting with instructors and facilitators who would be bound to a longer time commitment.

Describe the approach in the catalog. Let your audience know how the course is designed and they can choose for themselves. MOOCs have been accused of being one-size-fits-all, but I’ve found that much of that reputation comes from placing existing classroom courses, sometimes unaltered, into the structure of the MOOC platform. Yet within that structure many find ways to provide innovative learning techniques. Describe the intended audience for the course along with the content and let the learner decide.

The good news is that most of these suggestions are being tried. A recent report from Columbia University discusses the proliferation of various forms of the MOOC, and in a later posting, I’d like to start a discussion on the merits of xMOOCs, cMOOCs, and corporate MOOCs. But that’s a tale for another day. The success of Coursera, Udacity, and other similar open knowledge resources suggests that the form is evolving as practitioners continue on the grand experiment. My prediction: there will be many types of MOOCS, addressing the needs of learners throughout their lifetimes. Stay tuned!


Memorable Learning was founded after almost 30 years of telling the stories of people passionate about what they are doing. It began as writing laboratory reports to support a method of protecting a third-world farmer’s hard-won harvest from rats, but soon expanded. Whether it’s explaining a new software product to users, teaching engineers how to share data with international counterparts through an enterprise-wide system, or bringing accountants up to date on new developments in their fields, I’ve been privileged to work with some of the most passionate people in the world.

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