What MOOCs Tell Us About the State of Education Technology5 min read

MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses. They’re hot, hip and happening. Last year for example, MOOC enrollment surpassed a whopping 35 million, a doubling of the year before. In 2015, there were 4,2000 courses, offered by more than 500 universities. A large amount of venture capital money is going into them too, as platforms are pushed to deliver ever more sophisticated, but also interactive courses to thousands of online participants.

In many ways, they are the poster child of education technology in higher education. We are slowly (or quickly, as others might argue) entering a world where MOOCs and distance learning in general, are leaving the land of obscurity, and are becoming a mainstream source of recognized learning. This also means we have to be serious about how we evaluate them; with more and more people being involved, it is of the upmost importance that we can guarantee high-quality.


Cumulative number of MOOCs offered, January 2012 – January 2016
Cumulative number of MOOCs offered, January 2012 – January 2016. Source: Class Central


Difficulties in Evaluating MOOCs

Right off the bat, there are several problems in evaluating MOOCs. The most important one of them being “through what lens do we look at massive online courses?”

People often see MOOCs in the context of technology, and argue that applying tech opens up education to a large number of people. And it’s true; open online courses allow people to take courses anytime and anywhere, on any subject. MOOCs enable people who are less fortunate to learn valuable information and skills, without the burdens of travel and expenses. People who weren’t able to receive formal education, can now do so. This is called the democracy of education.

So the more people can take a course, the better, it seems. But when you think about it, how many people (can) take a course doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of learning. It’s very possible that thousands of people receive bad quality online education. And quality matters, especially when MOOCs grant certificates or are exchanged for college credit. It’s even more important when we consider that it enables third-world learners to educate themselves and better their situation.

Not Just Tech

Focusing on the technical aspects and the positive effects of tech has another problem. MOOCs are open, which means they have no enrolment criteria and students do not have to pay a fee to participate. Consequently, learners will behave differently compared to students who have paid large amounts of tuition. Sure enough, MOOCs have alarmingly low completion rates. Dr Ben Brabon of Edgehill University, for example, notes that out of 1,000 enrolments, 31 students complete his online course. This is because the average MOOC learner is a working parent in their thirties who wants to stay up-t0-date and participates for the sake of self-development. In fact, according to a survey taken by the University of Derby’s Dementia, almost 35% of participatents didn’t even have the intent to complete the course. When we focus our attention too much on the tech, we oversee the fact that right now, MOOCs are a nice to have for people who don’t need it, instead of a great tool for those who do.

Source: nature.com

Technology might seem exciting at first, but tech means nothing without the people implementing and using it. MOOCs, better than any other form of education technology, show us that we need to be more critical when we figure out the benefits of edtech. Instead of the technology in edtech, we need to to evaluate MOOCs in the context of education. They are a legitimate way to educate people, so we should assess the quality of learning that occurs, just as we do with regular education. Whether or not MOOCs are any good then becomes a question of instructional design and pedagogy.

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MOOCs and Learning

So how can we assess the quality of learning? In their research, Margaryan et al (2015) look at MOOCs using key instructional design theories and models, and introduce 10 important concepts needed to evaluate learning. These are as follows:

1) Problem centered: It’s best to have learning occur in the context of real-world problems.
2) Activation: Learning works well if it can activate already existing knowledge.
3) Demonstration: Is there a demonstration of the skill to be learned?
4) Application: Students should be able to apply their newly learned skills and use them to solve problems.
5) Integration: It’s best to have students reflect on and discuss the skills they acquired.
6) Collective knowledge: Can your students contribute to the collective knowledge?
7) Collaboration: Are learners working together?
8) Differentiation: Learning is promoted when different learners are provided with different, personalized learning paths.
9) Authentic resources: It’s best when resources come from real-world settings.
10) Feedback: Are teachers, a.k.a. experts, giving good feedback on student performances?

They have found that most MOOCs score highly when it comes to organizing and presenting course material, but fail to provide good instructional design principles. Especially when it comes to feedback, personalized paths, learner support, interaction and engagement, there is a lot of ground to win for large online courses.

MOOCs and Edtech

So what does all of this teach us about edtech? Feedback, support, interaction and engagement; these are some of the qualities that make classroom experiences great. Real quality teaching happens when talented and experienced teachers give engaging lessons, know their students and are able to provide personalized, expert support. We cannot assume technology will solve all our problems without any interfering. As providers of education technology solutions, we need to keep in mind what makes great education great, and think of ways to implement, facilitate or strenghten these qualities in our technology solutions.

Technology can never replace the teacher, but has to occur next to great educators. So for MOOCs and other edtech solutions, this means analyzing the pedagogy of great teaching and bring those aspects into the digital world where they can amplify their positive effect. If we can do that, we can make sure online education isn’t just a nice to have, but a true path to the democracy of quality education.

Let’s talk again soon,




  1. David Thornton

    Over the past three years I have participated in some twenty MOOCs on a range of topics. Most of them have given me great pleasure and have helped me as a scholar and as an educationalist [reluctantly retired]. I found this article [and the recommended research paper] most interesting.

    I was particularly taken by one point: .

    My view is that this is the elephant in the room for MOOCs and is worthy of much more discussion. MOOCs [by their very impersonal take-it-or-leave-it nature] simply cannot offer this desirable [differentiated and individualised] facility in the same way that FTF classroom or tutorial [121 or small group] situations can. The typical experience [for this participant at least] is of impersonalized [and often rather mediocre] MOOC presenters staring blankly into a camera and offering the antithesis of classroom presence.

    Teaching entails performance … and the MOOC format does not help mediocre performers. MOOCs may actually make the presenter more distant to the participant; for me at least there is no feeling of and interaction. I cannot see how MOOCs can overcome this problem of personalised and individualised interaction between participants and with presenters.

  2. David Thornton

    My apologies: I omitted the quote from the original blog:

    Real quality teaching happens when talented and experienced teachers give engaging lessons, know their students and are able to provide personalized, expert support.

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