Higher Education

One Flew Over the MOOC-oo’s Nest

“If you don’t watch it people will force you one way or the other, into doing what they think you should do, or into just being mule-stubborn and doing the opposite out of spite.”
― Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

This is a story about failure. It’s a story about learning and lofty goals; but, still, it’s a story about failure. And, the failure is all mine.

In September, I wrote a post, Lifelong Learning: MOOC’s vs Liberal Arts Colleges, and stated my intention to experiment by enrolling in both MOOC’s and a real course. Right there, did you catch that? I said, real course, and that’s an issue with MOOC’s. Put another way, it’s a thought process that led to my failure.

I failed, because I did not complete any of the courses. I failed spectacularly, because I watched a few lessons and didn’t stick with the program. Why didn’t I stick with the classes? Well, what was the incentive? I received no grade. There was no relationship with the instructor. I did not feel like I was part of a class. Once I fell behind there was no intervention or attention from the instructor. Instead, when I received emails from the instructor it felt more like getting spammed. We started on this path together and they’ve no idea how far I’ve wandered. But, should they care? I was one of the 120,000 people they can point to as having enrolled.

Where I succeeded was in the real class, Foundations of Computer Science, which I took at Hendrix College. I succeeded, because there was a commitment. There were scheduled times for class and lab. I would receive a grade and I wanted a good grade. I succeeded, because the professor was available for help, provided thoughtful feedback, and was invested in his students.

While there is so much talk about MOOC’s from people involved in higher education, it seems like there is an interminable silence from the greatest demographic: students. What do college students want? They don’t want to go in debt in order to get a degree, but do they want to take online classes with thousands of students?

MOOC’s have the potential to reshape education. Read Clay Shirky’s post, Napster, Udacity, and the Academy, for a well-reasoned perspective. But who is doing the reshaping and who really wants it? Are universities reacting to one another or are they strategically shifting to a new model?

For me, MOOC’s were a failure. Partly, I over scheduled and was not invested. I plan to take another class and put more effort in it next semester, but my failure raises some important issues. It also helps me identify what I need to do in order to succeed in a MOOC. I need to treat it like a real class. I need to schedule specific times to watch the videos. I need to seek out a community of support. There are a lot of “I’s” in that sentence and it reflects the nature of a MOOC. The onus is on the student. Will college students respond positively or negatively?


Bill Fryman

Tim, Have you attempted any more “traditional” online courses where the number of students per instructor was limited, there was opportunity for instructor interaction, etc.? I only as because it would seem that an unlimited or at least massive number of students in a single course would present a significant hurdle to any meaningful instructor/student interaction.

Timothy A. Lepczyk

Bill, while I was at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, I took a couple of distance courses. A few of the courses were taught online from the university and on-campus students had the option to take the class in-person or remotely.

I always opted to take the course in-person as I found it far more engaging to be in the room with the professor.

I also took one class that was taught entirely online by a professor from Colorado. The class took place in real time and students interacted through chat and mics. If you had a question, you virtually raised your hand and the professor would unmute your mic so that you could speak.

It was far more engaging than a MOOC, but lacked the atmosphere and engagement of an in-person class.


I think it has always been the case that online courses in general demand more self-discipline and motivation from the student, and that can be a shortcoming. But MOOCs clearly fill a need, and a large number of students who enroll ARE successful. I share your skepticism that MOOCs are on the verge of reshaping higher education, but I do think they are providing a viable alternate path for many motivated learners.

Scott Hadley

I think Timothy has hit the essence in his final paragraph – “There are a lot of “I’s” in that sentence.”

IMHO – one of the key characteristics of a successful life-long learner (which we all need to be in this dynamic world) is the ability and desire to be responsible for your own learning. That meanings nurturing your learning environment/community, seeking the appropriate knowledge to cultivate, …


You are one of those lucky guys in the USA who can afford to get f2f education .
If also your school is good sure I would go to offline college with all the previlages of the college.
But reality is not that .
Most schools are expensive people cannot afford
Most colleges are not providing good education .
That is the reason MOOCs are around and they will provide degrees as well within 5 years .

Timothy A. Lepczyk

Thanks for the comments, mgozaydin. Do you mind if I ask where you are from? I’m interested in learning more about your education opportunities and experiences.

Also, have you taken any MOOC’s?

Eric Szvoboda

I cannot think of how many times someone told me what i should study to get a job for this or that. However, i believe you go to school to learn to think instead of regurgitate facts that are not useful. If we start thinking no matter what work we are in we will be successful.

al rowberry

I am currently a senior in CS at a name university where I pay almost $300/credit hour. It took me four attempts before I figured out the secret of MOOC success: I had to put on my big boy pants, do the work, not get behind schedule and accept that my mommy couldn’t help me.

A calculus course was my first success because I finally took that MOOC seriously. This was not dummied-down material that was being taught. If I had needed one-on-one help then tutoring is widely available from several sources including online Tutor.com and for VERY reasonable cost compared to my university tuition.

In any case, here’s my main point: MOOCs are in their infancy. They are like a Pac-man arcade game quality today compared to what they will become. Serious developers, instructional and graphic designers are getting involved; serious venture capital is being attracted. You can expect that MOOCs of tomorrow will be like WoW or Skyrim quality comparative to the Pac-man quality of these first MOOC experiments.


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