Mixing it up in MOOCs

The New York Times declared this The Year of the MOOC. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are a fantastic innovation in distance education: university-level courses free to the masses. People are flocking to them by the thousands … and then dropping out of them… by the thousands!

See, this new form of online learning– or perhaps “forum” is better as it harkens to the classical origins of an open public space for discourse and collaboration — requires an extraordinary level of self-regulation, intrinsic motivation, and determined persistence.

I know this, yet I’m a habitual MOOC dropout. I’ve tried three times now. All courses were provided by world-class institutions and professors. But each time, my focus waned and I stopped participating.

Absent the incitements of receiving college credit, recognizing return on investment, or otherwise valuing the exercise of personal knowledge and skills, it is hard to justify engaging in rigorous assignments, spending hours reading and studying, and enduring the hassles of completing virtual team projects.

For my latest effort, I joined the MOOC with two friends. I thought direct social support was my missing ingredient. I’m highly motivated in team environments and enjoy co-creation activities. But alas, we encountered several “this assignment will take hours and I don’t have the time this week” revelations. We dropped out together.

So what’s missing from MOOCs? There are extraordinarily talented instructors and superb institutions trying to concoct the what-works-best MOOC recipe.

Here are five elements I think can help:

  1. Properly set student expectations. This is not education as we’ve previously known it. Full disclosure of requirements upfront.
  2. Provide more flexible structure. Adaptive pathways and personalized options will greatly improve attention, motivation, and relevance.
  3. Subsume more elements of DIY-Hacker-Maker movement. We enjoy creating, sharing, and being recognized.
  4. Improve peer contact and support. Groupings by shared interests or other mutually selective means, dedicated virtual spaces for real-time and asynchronous communication, and coaching via virtual teaching assistants (TAs) or “section leaders.”
  5. Support self-selection of pacing by offering slower, normal, and accelerated schedules.

Through trial and error and from collective efforts, technical designs and instructional strategies for MOOCs will evolve. And, I’ll be along for evolution. I’m signing up for a new Coursera course today!