Three Cheers For MOOCs

August 21, 2013 by Bill Bradley


Title: The MOOC Controversy Rages

Competencies: self-development, managing self, achievement orientation, performance management

Who benefits: almost anyone 16 and older

Consultant Usage: self-development, coaching talent, organizational level HR consultants

What’s it about? This website is dedicated to and focused on providing information and insight on work competencies. Not all competencies are appropriate for all jobs. But one that is common to almost, if not all, competencies is professional/self development. Many of my posts are pointed in that direction. Today I want to focus 100% professional/self development.

As regular readers of this Wednesday post are aware, I am a big fan of and have a strong bias toward Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). I am especially fond of Coursera, the largest of the MOOCs. And right now I am feeling like a protective father whose child has been demeaned and ridiculed by some very mean/uneducated people.

I wrote a variance to this post several months back, but I want to revisit my thoughts and add some new information. The arguments against MOOCs haven’t changed much. They are just louder.

I would like to write this from the perspective of a MOOCer. Or more precisely a Courseran (Courserian?). I am now taking my 10th, 11th and 12th courses and have three more coming in September. I think I have earned the right to speak out.

I would also like to keep this post clear and simple. The critics tend to offer the abstruse, which has always been a neat political trick when you want to hide your real motives.

Let’s stay with Coursera. I have yet to read one negative article that starts with or shares the Coursera Mission Statement. So let’s start there.

“We believe in connecting people to a great education so that anyone around the world can learn without limits.

“Coursera is an education company that partners with the top universities and organizations in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. Our technology enables our partners to teach millions of students rather than hundreds.

“We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few. We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.”

I don’t know about you, but I find that to be a noble mission. But the critics rarely address the mission. They prefer to criticize Coursera for what Coursera is not trying to do. Let’s look at some of the most common complaints, starting with the two most frequent:

Coursera is trying to replace traditional universities. Where do you see that in the mission statement?

Coursera has a terrible dropout rate. The dropout rate is high. Rarely do more than 10% earn a Certificate of Completion. This one of those pesky facts I so dislike. This one confuses rather than enlightens. There are dozens of reasons for this dropout rate. Here are a few. (1) Coursera is not a university. It is not offering grades (except in a few rare cases). (2) Unlike a regular university, it is easy to drop in and dropout. There are no repercussions. Think of it as going into a library, browsing 10 books, but only checking out one. Do you criticize the library because the other 9 books were not checked out? (3) Think of the participants as learners, not students. We have the option to only study that which we feel is valuable. Of the 9 courses I have completed, I only earned 3 certificates of completion. The requirements of the other 6 classes didn’t interest me. I did actually stay with 8 of the 9 classes until the end, but only doing what was helpful to me. (4) There are many reasons for taking these classes that do not require completion. Younger people are taking some classes to supplement their existing university classes. Retirees enjoy them as continuing education. Working people are taking them for professional development, possibly for continuing education credit (in this case a certificate of completion would be necessary). Go back to the Coursera Mission Statement. There is a world of reasons to be taking these courses and, unlike at a university, each individual has the freedom to decide how much or how little she/he wants from any given course. Rather than focus on the dropout rate, focus on the completion rate. A typical course may issue 2,000 – 4,000 certificates of completion. Not many college classes can match that number.

Coursera classes are too hard. That’s an argument?

Coursera classes are too easy. If you can’t win with one side of the coin, try the other side. But let me use this as a way to discuss the quality of the courses. Let me start with the obvious. Some are hard. Some are easy. Most are in between. Isn’t that the same as on a university campus? Now what about the teaching quality? I have taken/am taking 3 classes from professors who were far, far superior to any professor I ever had in my undergraduate days, and better than most of my graduate level professors. A public shout-out and gratitude to Professors Philip Zelikow (history, University of Virginia); Dan Ariely (irrational behavior, behavioral economics, Duke University); Scott Plous (social psychology, Wesleyan University). As a footnote, these professors also used all forms of media to educate and delight. Professor Zelikow even had access to previously classified tapes of President Kennedy and his National Security Advisors discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis. You won’t find that in most classrooms! On the other hand, there were two classes from the University of Edinburgh that need major revisions and the class in Democracy was filled with valuable information delivered in the most boring monotone imaginable (Stanford University) – but I had professors like that in college lecture halls. I did read the professor’s book. Much better. So Coursera is much like a university in that regard. Some great courses; some average courses; some poor courses. The only real difference is how easy it is drop a poor class from Coursera. And please don’t forget, Coursera is still in its infancy. These things will get sorted out.

Coursera is a for-profit organization. First of all, what does that have to do with anything? As long as it sticks to its mission statement, so what? Second, if you have followed my posts over that past few weeks, you have read about conscious capitalism. It is the new economic model that is stakeholder driven. Coursera represents the best of this new model. I wish them all the success in the world. And it should be noted that haven’t made a profit yet. They are using their start-up money and income to improve on their mission. Don’t sound like greedy bastards to me.

This post is running a little long, so I will sum up. When detractors attempt to criticize Coursera and the other MOOCs for attempting to co-op the universities, they miss the mark. Outsiders (third parties) are seeing the benefits of MOOCs and are asking the question “Do they have a role inside the university.” That question is likely to be answered in the affirmative, but the debate will continue over the next few years. Meanwhile Coursera will continue to fulfill its mission of bringing free university level education to the world and to anyone who wants it. Three cheers for Coursera!

Catch you later.

Bill Bradley (mostly) retired after 35 years in organizational consulting, training and management development. During those years he worked internally with seven organizations and trained and consulted externally with more than 90 large and small businesses, government agencies, hospitals and schools.

Posted in Engagement

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  1. You are a believer and their best advocate. They are fortunate indeed.

  2. Gaurav says:

    Aptly put.

    I’m studying Social Psychology course by Prof. Scott Plous and it is not very easy. Getting statement of accomplishment only when course is though makes a difference. Else, we already have multiple online degree distributors.

    MOOCs has one more trait i.e. whether material/method is engaging enough. It is a test whether pedagogy is able to engage people on continuous basis. Such drop out rates also force us to have a look at our teaching methods.

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