What Is Wrong With MOOCs? Key Issues To Consider Before Launching Your First MOOC

What Is Wrong With MOOCs? Key Issues To Consider Before Launching Your First MOOC
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Summary: Despite the extensive critique they have received since they first appeared back in 2008, without any doubt, MOOCs consist today the latest trend in online learning. As MOOC initials stand for Massive Open Online Courses, by definition, they raise some key issues for which eLearning professionals who want to keep up-to-date with latest trends in the field may need further clarification. In this article, I’ll discuss these key definition issues, I’ll explain why MOOCs have not received the expected attention up to present, and I’ll highlight the critiques they have received as important factors to consider before launching your first MOOC course.

What Is Wrong With MOOCs? Key Points To Consider Before Launching Your First MOOC

Thinking that MOOCs have not yet received the attention they perhaps deserve, one would wonder what is wrong with MOOCs? Although the benefits of MOOCs were quite obvious from their first appearance back in 2008 [8], on the other hand, they have also received extensive critique. However, how can we still doubt about MOOCs when the number of unique registered learners raised from 3.6 million in 2012 to more than 9.7 million in 2013 [5]? The truth is that there is nothing wrong with MOOCs; it is just a series of issues that come into our minds, making us a bit reluctant to accept them as alternative methods of online learning. Defining MOOCs, by default raises some points to consider. Therefore, before launching your first MOOC course, think of the following:


  1. Number of attendees.
    Massive implies that MOOCs address to many concurrent learners; but how many? Is there a limit and what the potential consequences of this limit might be? The truth is that this is a great benefit, as MOOCs can reach a large number of learners. Your target audience can extend beyond the corporate training environment or the academic campus. This, however, raises a number of issues with respect to course management, registration, tracking of learners’ progress, among others. Therefore, the critical question is not whether you want to enter the MOOC ecosystem, but rather whether you have the resources to handle such a big project.
  2. Instructional strategy to be used.
    It is generally true that the larger the audience, they more heterogeneous it is; as a consequence, it becomes increasingly difficult to address to the particular needs of your learners, limiting MOOC developers to a one-size-fit-all approach. Be prepared for this, and organize you MOOC learning content accordingly. Your alternative is to create different versions of the same MOOC content, in different contexts for instance, addressing to different target audiences; but doesn’t this go against the entire MOOC concept?
  3. Assessment type.
    Speaking of large number of learners, assessment is a very critical factor that has a direct impact on completion criteria for the MOOC course. Although there are alternative forms of assessment for social learning, such peer group evaluations, etc, due to the large number of enrollments involved in MOOCs, I would highly recommend automatically graded closed-ended self-assessment.


Neither this part is clear enough. Does it refer to open content, open registration, or does it simply mean that they are free of charge?

  1. Open content / Open registration.
    It is true that online courses, available to all on a 24/7 basis, and above all, in their majority free of charge, is something that cannot be easily ignored. MOOCs seem to be the answer to the 21st century challenge of lifelong learning. When properly designed, they become participatory learning events, the real benefit of which is that they give learners the opportunity to engage with each other and the online material and interchange opinions about a particular topic.
  2. Free of Charge.
    Of course, this is great news from the learners’ point of view, but why MOOC providers are so willing to invest time, money and resources if there is no profit involved. MOOC course development involves a significant investment you should not underestimate. MOOC course development can range up to $ 300.000, depending on how much complicated and professional you want your end result to be. Don´t forget that MOOC is also a business; a new “product” for private companies and academic institutions with potential to produce huge revenue if marketed correctly, as it has been estimated that there are more 2 billion potential learners worldwide [1].


  1. Synchronous.
    One thing for sure is that it refers to the nature of the MOOC courses, that is certainly web-based, without however clarifying further whether these courses will be synchronous or asynchronous. Although the majority of MOOCs are usually asynchronous, there are cases that they may also include synchronous features, such as interactive whiteboards, live chats and webinars.
  2. Asynchronous.
    Due to the fact that they are addressing to a large audience, most of MOOCs are mainly based on asynchronous learning methods. The MOOC content usually involves uploading of online content of various types, ranging from plain HTML pages to interactive flashed-based presentations. Some providers also give MOOC developers the opportunity to upload their own video files, or even recording them within the MOOC platform. Uploading recorded lectures is typical of the type of videos that may be used for MOOCs. Blogs, wikis, online discussions, personal and group e-portfolios are other types of collaborative learning methods that may be employed.


  1. The pedagogy behind MOOCs.
    Of course, it implies that as online courses they will have a start and end date, but, most importantly, that there should be a valid pedagogy behind MOOCs. Will they be offered for self-study or they will be instructor-led, and if you opt for the second, what will be instructor’s role? Above all, what would be the most appropriate instructional design for such a huge audience? In education, the one-size-fits-all approach rarely yields the best results, and I strongly believe that this is their weakest point, combined with lack of qualitative standards for comparing MOOC courses.
  2. Accreditation.
    When the assessment issue is resolved, your next consideration should be whether the MOOC course will also be offered for accreditation or not. However, up to present, according to the National University Technology Network (2014), there is no system of credit recognition among different MOOC platforms.
  3. Course Management and Tracking Issues.
    Last but not least, MOOC providers should be able to offer a reliable registration and tracking system. Analytics should be offered in order for MOOC facilitators to be able to keep track of learners’ performance and interfere accordingly. This information serves as invaluable data that will help them make decisions about the MOOC content and proceed to updates, improvements and other changes, as necessary.

All these are issues that you need to take into consideration when designing your MOOC strategy; and each one of them should be described in detail in your instructional design for MOOCs.

Critiques MOOCs Have Received

Despite the benefits, before deciding to launch your first MOOC course, also have in mind that MOOCs have received extensive critique. Some believe that they have weak points that cannot be easily surpassed. Let’s examine the basic arguments against MOOCs.

  1. Very low completion rates.
    This is the strongest argument against MOOCs, as there is supporting evidence to prove this. Research has shown that MOOCs completion rates can be as low as 7% [6], as learners’ participation seems to start dropping even from the very first week of attendance. Many attribute these low completion rates to lack of interaction [3] or to the fact that completion is not important, as learners usually enter to look for a specific piece of information they need [4]; however, personally, I would attribute this finding on the fact that MOOCs are offered to the public for free. The fact that MOOCs are given for free, may attract learners who want to give them a try, but does not necessarily imply that these people were initially interested in the subject matter or committed to complete the MOOC course. As a matter of fact, there are other studies mentioning that learners who were asked to pay a small fee had shown higher completion rates [2]. Therefore, I believe it’s safe to conclude that low completion rates have nothing to do with the quality of MOOC courses, nor with the degree of satisfaction online learners may experience.
  2. Low motivation.
    It is generally true that self-study requires commitment and self-discipline. In most cases, especially for asynchronous MOOC courses, learners may not be motivated enough to keep up with their online content. In synchronous eLearning, however, this is part of the duties of the facilitator of the MOOC course.
  3. Low perceived value compared to University Degrees.
    Another major reason  why MOOCs are not so widely spread yet is because they are considered to be “competitive” to university attendance. MOOCs give everyone the opportunity to access academic material and even acquire an online degree, which raises a series of questions, such as  the future of instructor-led classroom, physical or virtual, the real value of university degrees earned online compared those earned at a college or university campus. Again, seeing MOOCs under the concept of lifelong learning and advertising them as such, may be the answer to this issue.
  4. Competition among MOOC providers and smaller academic institutions.
    The decision to offer MOOC programs or not, also affects the way actual universities and colleges operate. Are MOOCs the new face of academic institutions for the 21st century they cannot do without? How does the private sector enters the game? Are small colleges willing to buy MOOC material from other universities, or even, private companies, or they will try to build their own MOOC material? Can they afford to do so? Isn’t this a typical example of unequal opportunities? From an instructor’s and organizational point of view, it requires extensive time, money, effort and devotion to build a new MOOC course, and smaller colleges certainly neither do they possess the resources to develop them, nor the worldwide reputation to “market” them accordingly in order to promote their work.
  5. Education perceived as a product.
    Talking about promotion, by default converts education into a product. Imagine the following scenario: MOOC is a new product to be marketed and launched ONLY by academic institutions which can afford to develop and advertize it worldwide. An innovative way to increase their revenue, which is generated by selling the MOOC content they are developing to those who cannot afford to build their own learning material. By no means, my aim is to show that this is unethical; on the contrary, I find it an innovative new business opportunity. And as such, its aim should be to generate profit. However, as a learner I would expect a quality “product” of educational nature from the corporate sector, such as an IT or a Project Management Certification, for instance, but a more “non-profit” approach from educational institutions.
  6. Localization issues.
    Without any doubt, MOOCs have reached a great potential in the US. The biggest challenge, however, seems to be to extend this phenomenon globally. The only way do this is by localizing original MOOC courseware, in order to be offered also in languages other than English. The trend also involves the gradual appearance of non-US MOOC providers, such as the Spanish-speaking MirandaX, with over 1 million registered users [7].

Strong Points About MOOCs eLearning Professionals Should Consider

By no means MOOCs have only disadvantages. Despite the extensive critique they have received they still consist one of the best choice to extend the limited horizons of your online class and help you address to a bigger audience. Apart from the obvious benefits of open content, open free of charge registration already covered, I’ll provide you with two additional tips why you should still consider developing MOOCs.

  1. They are cost-effective.
    MOOCs may prove to be a very cost-effective way to create eLearning. They may just be the alternative eLearning professionals seriously need to take into account, instead of building their own eLearning platform. MOOC courses are easy to create, and they may prove to be a less expensive solution in case you do not have many customization requirements.
  2. MOOCs can serve as a great recruitment tool.
    Last but not least, MOOCs have proved to be great recruitment tools in the corporate sector. Observing the attendance list of MOOC courses has recently become a habit for many HR departments, as it is perceived as a good indicator that a candidate or a new employee is self-motivated, and willing to achieve self-development and personal growth.

Still interested in learning more about how to integrate MOOCs in your eLearning strategy? The article 6 Benefits Of Using MOOCs For Corporate Training highlights the many benefits that MOOCs can offer to corporations.


  1. Bersin Josh (2013), The MOOC Marketplace Takes Off, Retrieved from Forbes on July 24th, 2015: http://www.forbes.com/sites/joshbersin/2013/11/30/the-mooc-marketplace-takes-off/
  2. Dodd Tim (2015), Fee payments lift MOOC completion rates, Retrieved from AFRWeekend on July 26th, 2015: http://www.afr.com/news/policy/education/fee-payments-lift-mooc-completion-rates-20150412-1mhw76
  3. Lackner E., & Kopp, M., (2014), Do MOOCs need a special Instructional Design?, Retrieved on July 24th, 2015 from: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/263784897_Do_MOOCs_need_a_Special_Instructional_Design
  4. LeBar Matthew, (2014), MOOCs --Completion is not important, Retrieved from Forbes on July 26th, 2015: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ccap/2014/09/16/moocs-finishing-is-not-the-important-part/
  5. National University Technology Network (2014), MOOCs Next Phase: Global system for MOOCs Verified Credential Recognition, Retrieved on July 24th, 2015 from http://www.slideshare.net/MOOCsUniversity/moocs-next-phase-global-central-system-for-credential-recogntion
  6. Parr Chris (2013), MOOC Completion Rates ‘below 7%’: Open online courses’ cohort much less massive at finish line, Retrieved from Times Higher Education on July 24th, 2015: https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/mooc-completion-rates-below-7/2003710.article
  7. Shah Dhawal (2014), MOOCs in 2014: Breaking down the numbers, Retrieved from edSurge on July 24th, 2015: https://www.edsurge.com/n/2014-12-26-moocs-in-2014-breaking-down-the-numbers
  8. Wikipedia (2015), Massive Open Online Course, Retrieved on July 18th, 2015 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massive_open_online_courses