“Lots of students” is not a course format.

As many of you know, I’ve worked on a mid-sized online course. Mid-sized means about 15,000 registrants – we’re much larger than most distance-education courses, but smaller than the really huge courses with 50,000-100,000 registrants. It’s interesting to note that in terms of students who pass the course, we’re on par with some of the bigger courses at ASU or Texas A&M. Massive indeed.

There are a lot of articles about MOOCs these days, including those that say (already, not two years into the process) that their days are numbered. There seems to be a fair amount of confusion about what makes something a “MOOC” and what that means about the course itself. Let me break down the acronym.

M – Massive. Large numbers of students.

O – Open. No prerequisites, no cost, preferably reusable materials.

O – Online. Fairly obvious.

C – Course. Intended for education.

Nothing in that acronym says anything about how the course is to be run. There are some substantial differences between how, say, 8.01X and PoetryX are delivered. Both follow the typical lines for on-campus courses for those two departments, but 8.01 is a physics course that involves a lot of lectures, homework, and mathematics, while poetry is taught in a more conversational manner, focusing on discussions and writing assignments. The online versions of these courses follow the on-campus versions fairly closely.

There are two reasons that most MOOCs follow similar formats, with some combination of lecture videos, texts, discussion boards, and computer-graded questions. One is that some of the professors who want to move their courses online are most interested in duplicating the on-campus experience as closely as possible. The other is that the professors who want to do something unique and different find themselves stymied by the available tools. edX is one of the more flexible systems out there, and still I complain a lot about its lack of flexibility. I’m working on a few more courses right now, mostly in advanced areas in the sciences. The professors I work with want to create something exceptional and useful and powerful and – frankly – not that difficult to do, and the system isn’t up to it yet. (Yet.) The more powerful the underlying systems become, the more unique and interesting things we’ll be able to do. We just need to keep pushing for more development and more features.

Don’t confuse “class with lots of students” with “class involving lecture video and computer-graded questions.” We do little courses too (SPOCs – Small, Private Online Courses) and we’re limited by the same tools. Within these tools we have some flexibility, but we’re stretching and pushing for more as hard as we can. If we manage to keep the same enrollment numbers, the definition of MOOC will spread out fantastically as we develop more and better tools.

If the numbers drop, people might claim that “the MOOCs failed,” but there’s nothing in that acronym that’s a process – there’s nothing there to fail.

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About Colin Fredericks

By day I help to create online courses at HarvardX. By night I write roleplaying games.

Posted on December 4, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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