I Took a MOOC, and I Think I Liked It

For the first time since leaving graduate school almost 15 years ago, I enrolled in a class, “Maps and the Geospatial Revolution,” and the first day wasn’t like that of any other class I’ve taken. In lieu of finding a seat, I placed a virtual pin (labeled “participant”) on a digital world map, along with 47,000 of my classmates scattered around the world. I was enrolled in a MOOC.

I teach history and geography at a small college in rural Ohio, and like many in my profession, I’ve been watching the development of massive open online courses with some concern, particularly since MOOCs started being absorbed into curricula. In the office-door debates I engage in with department colleagues regarding the revolution in online learning, I try to be savvy. I generally welcome technology; I’ve taught online and found teaching there does have its advantages.

So, instead of ignoring MOOCs or dismissing them as a fad, I thought I’d try one. The five-week course I took introduced the fundamentals of geospatial analysis and mapping. It was taught by a talented assistant professor. The course was perfect for me; content in an area of personal interest and a skill in mapping tools I could use in my teaching. I earned a statement of accomplishment (the typical non-credit-bearing MOOC credential). I even earned an A- on my final map design project. MOOCs are free and carry no credit, which gives students little incentive to complete them. The pass rate in my course was 8.8 percent.

Beyond learning how to make some pretty cool maps, my experience gave me new insights about MOOCs. I am now less concerned about impending revolutions and more interested in the ways MOOC content might be used to supplement what I do in my courses. MOOCs perform some teaching tasks capably. At the same time, if course goals include critical thought and analytical skills, MOOCs fall short. That sort of learning relies on a direct connection between teacher and student, and doing this properly on a massive scale is virtually impossible. Rather than fretting about the likelihood of being replaced by a cabal of masterminds immortalized in streaming video, faculty should be reminding themselves and others that we promote authentic learning through invaluable intellectual relationships that we establish with students.

MOOCs work like supersized online courses: a series of video tutorials with online tests and assignments that reinforce the content. Objective assignments are graded automatically, and analytical work, such as my final mapmaking project, involves peer review. Interaction with other students takes place in online discussions, and regular participation is usually a component of the grade. Direct interaction with the instructor is rare. It happened once in my course.

The revolutionary potential for MOOCs exists in the educational opportunities they offer gratis (at least for the moment) to populations that would not otherwise have access to them. Whether a student hails from Portland or Port-au-Prince, if he or she is motivated and has adequate bandwidth, there’s an amazing spectrum of offerings.

As a professor, I find the most meaningful learning takes place in discussion, whether online or in class. When I was a MOOC student, my expectations for meaningful interactions were not met. A MOOC’s global scope is often touted as a strength, and what engaged learner isn’t going to be attracted to the promise of exchange with students around the world? I watched with excitement as language-based study groups rapidly assembled themselves in my course. By the end of the first week, there were groups for 17 different languages. Even so, the vast scope of ongoing discussions was intimidating; with thousands of active conversations going on around the clock, how and where does one jump in? Given the fact that my course was a shorter-term, first-time offering, with no real way of assessing English fluency among nonnative speakers and writers, the free-for-all nature of the discussion was unavoidable.

In order to shepherd legions of students through individual projects, MOOC instruction relies heavily on peer review. In my course, we were given a rubric for the final project assessment, which we used to grade our own maps and the maps of three others in the class. I did learn from the analysis and critique of the maps I reviewed, and I received some valuable feedback on my map. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that the feedback provided by an expert versed in the principles of map design and thoroughly familiar with the software would have been more valuable.

My experience with MOOCs, limited though it is, suggests that they are best suited for the type of content-focused learning normally relegated to introductory, survey courses. Where interpretations vary, where the boundaries of a topic or discipline are contested and begin to blur, where the charted territory of received knowledge disappears over the horizon and the turbulent waters of knowledge creation approach, the student needs to be in direct consultation with a seasoned instructor. Positive student-faculty relationships have a significant impact on student success in all courses, especially those that students perceive as difficult.

Even though most of my experience confirmed many of my preconceived notions about MOOCs, I did see new possibilities for instructors who may want to use MOOCs in whole or in part to supplement their own teaching. In this way, rather than representing a revolutionary shift, the MOOC will take its place among other course material options.

If there ever is a MOOC revolution, it will likely be in the developing world, where students can have access to an education that would otherwise be outside their grasp. In countries with extensive higher education infrastructure, MOOC impact may be primarily in reaching populations poorly prepared to transition to college-level work. But the bottom line is this: MOOCs cannot replace the relationship between instructor and student, and those of us concerned about their impact should highlight the value of live interaction with our students, especially when dealing with administrators who are enamored with the cost savings potential of MOOCs.

Matthew Young is a McCoy Professor of History at Marietta College.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 28.1 (2014): 5-6. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.