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How Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) Work

        Culture | Learning

The xMOOC Revolution
Most MOOCs comprise video lectures, multiple-choice quizzes and online forums where students and instructor can talk with each other.
Most MOOCs comprise video lectures, multiple-choice quizzes and online forums where students and instructor can talk with each other.
© Greg Vote/Corbis

Only 1 in 10 students who registers for a MOOC completes it. This may be because many students enroll in the course without intending to finish it; they simply want access to the information provided, treating the MOOC as a continually evolving, interactive textbook [source: Simonite].

Other "drop-outs," though, may intend to complete the course but fail. Varying levels of technological know-how are partly to blame, but growing pains in the learning format contribute significantly [source: Simonite]. "It's difficult to match the student engagement [of a] face-to-face setting," Brinton admits. "Techniques we have experimented with such as virtual office hours seem to help mitigate this, at least to some extent."

The connectivist ideal isn't lost, but it is watered down. For instance, many MOOCs are not as student-guided and participatory as connectivism envisions. Peer-grading is relatively rare. Classes are more structured. Course materials may not be free. And in self-paced MOOCs, where the "peer group" is constantly changing as new students sign up and others speed up or slow down, peer-centered learning can suffer [source: Morrison].

Remember, massive open online courses are still in their infancy. Brinton describes them as "an ongoing experiment from which we are now witnessing the initial results." MOOC designers will need to address the obvious shortcomings if the format is to be the revolutionary step in education some predict. Luckily, the format itself allows for a level of student feedback never before available in the education realm: Researchers can see every keystroke, ever click-through and every time a student fast-forwards through or abandons a video lecture (which large numbers of students do), and then test adjustments at will [source: Simonite].

The rapid, international growth in MOOC offerings and the students expressing interest in them seems to herald real change in how the world learns [source: Amara]. The nature of that change, however, is the source of intense debate.


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