Confessions of a Massive Open Online Course Flunkie

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from my years spent in pursuit of a Bachelor’s in Education was really quite simple yet profound: “don’t let your class or syllabus get in the way of learning.”  Some of you might have heard of it also referred to as the K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) method.  You want your students to get in to complex thinking as they are learning the topic of the course, not as they are trying to figure out what to do on the first day.

I have signed up for many Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) recently – and never completed a single one.  That is my biggest confession. Most colleagues get pretty shocked to hear that – after all, Mr. EduGeek himself would seem to be the best person to figure out a MOOC and get the most out of it.  Maybe even become a rock star in one.

But the problem is, I just don’t have time to figure out how to use one.  Yes, I will spend forever trying to figure out how to customize a WordPress app, but I won’t take the time to figure out how to participate in a MOOC.

At first, I though it was just me.  But then I found out that the people teaching the courses I never touched had to create a four minute long video explaining how to have success in a MOOC.  That is probably the first bad sign right there.  If you have to take a mini-course on how to take your course, you are probably having to focus too much on the structure and not the learning.  Even in Blackborg, the focus on figuring out the course is knowing what links to click, not what to do with the links after you know what to click.

Dave Cormier (how created the video linked to above) gives five steps on how to have success in a MOOC.  Each one of the steps needs explanation, because they don’t necessarily make sense without the explanations.  See how complex this is getting?

Of course, I was also one of those people that avoided the massive “lecture hall” courses in college.  It was just too easy to get lost in the crowd, even if you tried not to.  Being a male educator in a room full of predominately females, I saw first hand how easy it is for the minority to get lost in the mix, even if they tried not to.  Online, it is usually the minority opinion that gets lost… which is what usually happens to me in MOOCs.  You see, just because you follow and comment on other people’s work, there is no guarantee that they will follow and comment on you, ESPECIALLY if they disagree with you.  They will possibly even get mad that you aren’t stroking their ego and just ignore you (just being brutally honest here – the web is a magnet of narcissism).

My biggest confession is that I don’t see the point of a MOOC if I already have a Personal Learning Network.  I honestly don’t see the need for any type of open course once you have a PLN and have figured out Google.  But that probably also has to do me starting to question the whole concept of “open.”  It seems that “open” is now becoming synonymous with “lack of accountability.”  But that is a topic for another blog post.

To me, the advantage of taking a course is that you get to interact with the instructor or some other type of subject matter expert – and they are the ones that help you focus on what you need to be learning.  The MOOC removes this value but leaves the time lines and due dates.  So in other words, you remove the actual value of being in a course but leave the annoying part.

I know, I know – you are supposed to network with other students and they will give you the feedback and information you need.  That is all great – if you connect with a good group of people.  There is no guarantee you will connect.  And even if you do – what if they just rubber stamp whatever you say because they fear conflict? What if they really have no idea what they are talking about but think they are an expert?  You could end the class with a bunch of new knowledge that is actually worthless because you hooked up with the wrong group.  I know that in some subjects there are no wrong answers so that is not always the case – but it is a danger.  One that is less likely to exist in a traditional course.

Obviously I am focusing on worst case scenarios.  I think that the fact that I am an instructional designer by trade now I know that it is possible to design a “traditional” course that dumps the bad parts typically associated with the “sage on the stage” mentality while still incorporating the good parts of a MOOC (all while also avoiding the pitfalls of a MOOC).  In other words, a course that connects with existing PLNs instead of creating news ones.  You only have so much time after all (another confession of mine – I don’t have time to keep up with the new PLNs formed in MOOCs). The only problem is that a course like this can really only exist in a traditional college course format and not in a MOOC format.  But a lot of that has to do with the “Massive” part.

I think I also just see the MOOC as the technology-driven, socially-networked version of the cattle-herd lecture hall courses so prevalent on college campuses today.   Herding 500 students in a course is still herding 500 students in a course, even if try to put a modern technology spin on it.  Some people think that is fine.  Personally, I like things smaller and more intimate.

9 thoughts on “Confessions of a Massive Open Online Course Flunkie

  1. Hi Matt – the MOOC model seems to produce more dropouts than completers. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because learners have different goals, perhaps it’s the content, or perhaps it’s the facilitators. With each offering, we are getting a better understanding of the learner experience and ways that we can improve the offering. At this moment, lack of participation and drop outs are my highest priority areas for research.

    The other aspect that has been over emphasized is the “Massive” part of MOOC. I think we should really focus more on the open/online. But I don’t quite understand you’re final paragraph – the courses I’ve been involved in are not at all like a 500 seat lecture hall. What part of the MOOC gave you that experience/impression?


  2. I really like MOOCs. If 2,000 people around the world sign up and 200 people get involved in online discussions, right away 1,800 people probably wouldn’t be good choices for a personal learning network. At the end of the course, there will probably be 50 people who are really, really committed to learning from each other. Most of those become facebook/twitter friends and core contributors to one’s personal learning network. Courses come and go – it’s the connections that last.

  3. Hi Matt;
    You touch on many different ideas. For one, I think there are different levels of pedagogical intent between say. . .:
    1. A Psych 101 course when the intent is to pass on a rather standardized body of content and vocabulary.
    2. An advanced seminar on learning where the intent is to form a nuanced ability to discuss contentious areas within a discipline and is structured by discussion in the literature,
    3. A MOOC like the recent PLENK 2010 where the intent (at least for myself) was to explore an emerging area of practice.
    The more messy things are, the closer it is to everyday practice where we’re often forced to “feel our way around” as we progress. The more open a course is, the closer it is to everyday practice, especially unstructured emerging practices.

  4. Hi Matt,

    I enjoyed your confession. Like you I took the same course – but I finished.
    I wanted to know, what is really going on in a MOOC. Neither do I wonder nor ponder, what I have gained in actual expertise or knowledge – I simply got, what I wanted to get, an assurance of my way of thinking.
    The old guard, those who became my PLN, the professors, tutors, mentors and teachers are great people, since they know, how to provide contend. Just led them participate in a MOOC and they will perform the edugeeky way like you afterwards- and the youngsters are hard working and concerning educators, from whom I learnt a lot.
    Anyhow, you did a little bit of advertising yourself. Keep on dethroning the LMS and – confessing.

  5. Hi Matt,
    I can’t agree more with your reflections. I am a PLENK drop out – I gave up pretty early despite heaps of very good intentions and zero bias or reluctance to “unlearn” (Stephen Downes in his OLDaily response suggests this may be the reason why you – and all of us quitters?- dropped out). Any learning I do in my PLNs is also ill-structured and ‘in real life’ I’m very comfortable finding my own multiple learning journeys through these PLNs. However the “ill structured” learning we love is not the same as “messy”. MOOC is a great concept but it needs work. It’s too easy for the facilitators to say that we don’t “get” it. Thanks George for listening and investigating this further.

  6. Hi George – my comparison to the 500 seat lecture hall may be influenced by my experiences here in Texas. For those courses, you were usually thrown in to a big room and handed a syllabus. Much like Dave’s video explained, you had to figure out for yourself how to succeed in the course. The professor wouldn’t watch out for you, and getting an appointment with him or her could take months. I was always told that the key to success was to network with other students outside the course – to form study groups. You would get together with these groups, help each other with projects, discuss the course, and study together. Finding these groups often meant listening in class to find other students that responded well to instructor questions (“commenting”), and then rushing to get them in your group before 50 other students did. If you happen to pick a bad study group, well – too bad.

    But, it is also obvious that I am putting up a worst-case scenario here – it is pretty easy to see that some people do learn from those types of courses.

    I am with you on focusing on the open and online. I think that there are many ways to look at the concept of open. As long as it includes having the courses be free and accessible to everyone, I think you are going to have high problems with drop-outs. It is kind of like iPhone apps – if you talk to someone about the apps they have, they usually have 20 pages or so of apps If you ask them how can they possibly use all of those, they usually just say they don’t and they just had to download all of them because they were free. Offering a course for free is not a problem, but I think a lot of people are going to jump on it because it is free, leading to a large number of drop-outs.

    But you don’t necessarily have to have your course be free and accessible to everyone for it to be open. The course I teach for UT Brownsville is only open to UTB students who have to pay for it, but the syllabus, content blogs, student work, etc all reside out on the web, in the open. Anyone can find it, but you have to be at UTB to get in as an actual student. Maybe some kind of application process for a limited number of spots would help with MOOCs – or maybe kill the concept. Who knows? But just having to fill out an application would probably make those that aren’t that serious move on.

    I think also that there is a need for better tools to run a MOOC or even an open course or just a course in general. The New Vision for LMS ideas that we are exploring here could easily be adapted for MOOCs ( After all, there is nothing saying that courses in the New Vision idea have to be hidden behind a password.

    I think part of the problem is also that we need a new structure for formal learning at colleges. If we had a tool like the New Vision LMS, one where Personal Teaching Environments were a reality, you could really begin to play with the whole structure of education. Instead of enrolling in a course, you would start following an instructor’s course feed, which is really just them researching and blogging and sharing with other students… maybe combined with a few basics that you also have to cover. Then, when you feel ready to complete the course, you complete the final project. The instructor could look at it and say “not quite, spend two more weeks in course and look at this and this” or even “great, you pass” or maybe even “I have never thought of that – you pass, and could you stay on a few more weeks to help flesh this out?” The student would move through the course at the pace they want to. The student population of the course would always be a good mix of newbies and students in the middle and students ready to finish.

    From a structural standpoint, students would probably then be in charge of developing their own map of courses they want to go through, probably in the form a few “streams” that they study concurrently. Two streams would focus on one objective each for their topic, maybe another stream for their “electives”, and then a final stream for their “enrichment” course (what we call the basics now – languages, literature, history, etc). Students are always in a course from each stream, but they set the order of the courses and move through at their own pace. You could even theoretically have students with fewer streams (if they are part time).

    From an institutional stand point, you probably have to move away from semester payments systems to more of a monthly payment system. I could also see this working great for face-to-face courses, too – where the discussion happens in a room with a revolving door of students. Instructors could also shift focus from getting a “class” done each semester to mentoring students in different places on the learning spectrum, while keeping current on their field and potentially getting tons of feedback and help on their own work in the process.

    Okay, this is probably turning in to a rambling mess of free-thought. I’m not sure what exactly sparked it, but I think I need to organize my thoughts a bit and write another blog post.

  7. @ruthdemitroff – I have two thoughts on what you have said. I think part of my problem is that the process to wait and whittle through the 2000 to the 200 to the 50 seems to be very time consuming process… and what if I choose the wrong 50 and my community dies out before the end? I wish there was a way to weed out the 1950 that didn’t need to be there from the beginning, because that is overwhelming. Not necessarily difficult, but we are all pretty busy.

    I have made connections with people in traditional and other (non-massive) open courses. None of those connections survived. They made it through the class, but then got busy and their Twitter and blog accounts went dead. I’m not sure I can say it is the connections that last – to me, it is the knowledge and skills that I gain from other students that has lasted longer (for me at least).

    @Howard – you’re right, there are different levels of pedagogical intent. And life is often messy. But I am often expected not to feel my way around at work, but to know exactly where to go and what to do. It is both, really – I find that life is a weird mix of messy and ordered, sometimes even in the same day.

    @Eva – sometimes, for me personally at least, my way of thinking needs a good foundation shaking as much as it needs an assurance :)

    @Anouk – I had to let Stephen know that if he really knew me, he would realize how silly his comments about me unlearning were. I like what Ilene the “Retired Librarian” said about it: “Hmmm… Maybe… but that just blames the learner and it’s just a way to shuffle off criticism. If students find your course confusing, perhaps there’s some ways to make less confusing. At the very least, acknowledge that the course IS confusing” (


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