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Learning Library Blog Do MOOCs live up to the hype? No
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Do MOOCs live up to the hype? No

By Kendra Grant
December 19, 2014
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When my colleagues and I set out to design and deliver a free online course for the ISTE Inclusive Learning Network, we asked ourselves whether massive open online courses (MOOCs) were really the way to go. We had heard that although many people sign up for MOOCs, few complete them, and we wondered why. So we looked into it and discovered that the research backs up the rumblings we heard: Completion rate statistics range from 3-13 percent.

Why? We believe that it's because they're not designed with engagement in mind. At this point, most MOOCs are mainly mere replications of existing practice — transmission of information, not transformation of learning. Evidence also suggests that enrollee engagement is further eroded by a lack of connection, construction and support. In a massive course, participants often feel alone, left to wade through the materials without any assistance from the instructor beyond generic emails. This lack of community and purposeful learning dialogue results in the eventual withdrawal of the majority of those who sign up.

We believe that online courses are scalable, but there is a law of diminishing returns. " "Massive" " is just too big to be interactive and thereby, engaging.

We know that online tools can transform learning. But achieving engagement requires a focus on sound pedagogical principles over content delivery, and building community requires an emphasis on personal connections that can happen only when the number of participants is not too high.

So we decided to blow up the MOOC model and start over. With the points above in mind, we created a small (supported and short) open online course (SOOC) that went live in February 2014. Our goal was to keep participants engaged and involved in their learning throughout a four-week course on the implementation of Universal Design for Learning with mobile devices and apps.

We based the design and delivery of the course on these four principles:

  1. Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
  2. A robust online community of practice
  3. Instructor-student interaction and co-construction
  4. Continuous feedback, discussion and connections

Keeping in line with the UDL focus of the course, we used UDL principles in its design, including acknowledging learner variability and offering choice. All aspects of the course, including the website design, images, resources and videos, were made accessible to the widest range of learners. We also created a Google+ community where participants posted and shared conversations and course products in a variety of formats based on their interests and needs, and where we the instructors posted, asked questions and shared our learning as we worked with the participants to co-create the community. Finally, we made feedback, discussion and real connections a priority. We sent out emails and answered emails and posts as quickly as possible, held Google Hangout " "office hours," " and provided weekly digital badges (through the Achievery system).

We were pleased with the engagement, but don't take our word for it. Here are comments from some of the participants, nearly all of whom said they would take a SOOC again:

This was the first time I'd taken an open online course and Google community was a great way for a course of this nature. The small size helped a lot; I am just starting a MOOC and the experience a) wouldn't lend itself well to Google communities, being so massive and b) isn't as engaging as a result!

A thanks to [the course instructors] for an interesting, thoughtfully designed, informative course. Their personal touch and dedication as instructors for a "low-stakes" SOOC which was free for participants was amazing.

I really liked the feedback from the instructors and the constant reminders that I had to complete the tasks. It was not blatant reminders, but the badges, highlighting what others posted and other activities that gently reminded me to get going with my work.

Ultimately, of the 30 participants who signed in to our Google+ community, we had a 53 percent completion rate. We learned some valuable lessons along the way that we hope to implement in our next iteration that launches Feb. 4 including more social media, a more constructivist environment, revised videos and rubrics for self-reflection. If you're interested in participating or learning more, join the Inclusive Learning Network (free for ISTE members).

We recognize the importance and opportunity that online learning offers, but, just like face-to-face instruction, online instruction is only as good as the effectiveness of its design. And when nearly 90 percent of students typically never complete MOOCs, it is hard to say that this is an effective design for instruction. Creating an engaging environment and supported learning opportunities in online courses is possible, however, when instructors use tools and practices that truly connect, support and interact with their students. It takes time and commitment, but it can be done!


In an example of distributed cognition, the author co-constructed this opinion piece, as well as the design and delivery of our SOOC, with Luis Prez and Elizabeth Dalton.

Luis Prez received his doctorate in special education from the University of South Florida. He is the author of Mobile Learning for All (Corwin Press) as well as an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Google Certified Teacher. 

Elizabeth Dalton is director of development and research for TechACCESS of Rhode Island and an independent education consultant. She has a PhD in education and post-doc credentials in UDL and is past-president of the Inclusive Learning Network.

Kendra Grant's varied career includes educator (teacher, library-media specialist, special ed coordinator), co-founder of a professional learning company, online course creator and large-scale technology implementation consultant. In addition to her volunteer work at ISTE, she is an adviser for ed tech startups at MaRS and is completing her master's in educational technology at the University of British Columbia.

The Inclusive Learning Network is just one of 30 ISTE Professional Learning Networks. Find one or more networks focusing on the topics that interest you most and sign up to get professional learning and collaboration free to ISTE members!