Bert and Ernie

The Rise of MOOCs: Can Online Distance Learning Replace Traditional Education?

13 minutes to read
Jan Dijsselbloem

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have been on the rise and are gaining popularity among students, ever since the term was first coined by Cormier (2008), but traditional teaching institutions are also showing more and more interest. With the internet still becoming a more important part of our lives, one might wonder whether, and how, online education could fit into, or even replace, regular education.

Contemporary education through MOOCs

A large number of universities, companies, as well as other insitutions have ventured into the field of MOOCs, a contemporary way of distance learning, more specifically: open-access online courses (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2016). MOOCs provide ways for universities to reach more students, globally, than ever before. Distance learning is something that we have been doing for a long time already, but over the last few decades it has incredibly developed. Prior to the printing press, students would basically have to physically attend one of the few—compared to current numbers—universities that existed, and had to listen to a professor lecturing (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2016). But the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1439, and its spread over Europe in the next few decades, lead to the availability of some twenty million copies of literature (Febvre & Henri, 1976, p.186) throughout Europe by the year 1500.

In the past fifty years, a number of distance learning universities worldwide have opened their doors to students. Universities like such include the Open University in the United Kingdom, the FernUniversität Hagen in Germany, as well as the Open Universiteit in the Netherlands. They also include online and digital learning these days, but started out with other modes of distance learning. Think of video cassettes, audio tapes and semi self-regulated reading at home. 

But MOOCs generally require much more of this self-regulated learning, while learners have to find their own way through the course material, at their own pace, while having minimal interaction with other students and tutors (Milligan & Littlejohn, 2014). Of course, today face-to-face interaction with our professors and teachers is still the most common mode of receiving education, but the book, and nowadays, the internet, have become increasingly more important learning tools, which provide many opportunities for distance learning.

A University Class in Bologna (1350s) by Laurentius de Voltolina

As an avid participant in these so-called MOOCs—I have taken several MOOCs on research methodology, intercultural communication and linguistics, both from Dutch universities as well as international universities—I am wondering if this contemporary approach of distance learning could be of added value to our educational system. In this paper I will try to answer three questions by doing a literature review. These questions are:

    1.    How effective are MOOCs?

The effectiveness of MOOCs, as we will find, is heavily debated with respect to both, the rate of students that successfully finish their course(s) and the grade averages. To be of added value to the curricula of students, MOOCs need to compete with traditional lectures and classes, showing consistent results. Therefore, we need to look into the results that are currently being harvested by the students that partake in MOOCs.

    2.    What are the effects of peers and teachers on the MOOC-student's motivation?

Although this question seems to differ from the main question, it is important to realize that a group of students is influenced by its own dynamics (and that of the teacher(s)). The decrease, or even lack of face-to-face interaction may affect the students' motivation, and as a result it may have implications on the rate of students that successfully finish their course(s) as well as the grades itself. 

    3.    Can MOOCs be integrated into 'physical' courses at colleges and universities?

Besides the possible added value of online distance learning through MOOCs, it has to be researched how it can complement, or even—partially—replace traditional lectures in classroom settings. There is an abundance of differences between the two learning (as well as teaching) styles, of which the implications for the learners have to be researched. If MOOCs cannot be properly integrated in our contemporary classrooms, it may be for the best to leave them out altogether.

If MOOCs cannot be properly integrated in our contemporary classrooms, it may be for the best to leave them out altogether.

I should use a disclaimer here, as not every online open course is a MOOC, but for the sake of not limiting myself to a discussion of these differences, I will specifically look at the courses as provided by Coursera. I am most familiar with their courses, and I think they are a fair starting point to answer my three questions.

Sesame street

If you grew up watching Sesame Street before going to bed, you basically are a child of the MOOC-generation (Kearney & Levine, 2015). Of course, the academic level at university is supposed to be different from the level of Sesame Street, but who does not remember the lessons of Bert and Ernie, the counting skills of Count von Count, or the wisdom of Kermit the Frog? Over time, our professors and teachers have changed, and their ways of teaching apply more to the school level we are attending, but they have a similar aim as the characters from Sesame Street: enhancing the educational level of their students. Sesame Street's "fundamental goal was to reduce the educational deficits experienced by disadvantaged youth based on differences in their preschool environment" (Kearney & Levine, 2015). 

In this sense, Sesame Street is comparable to programs like Head Start and Perry Preschool, programs, also intended to prepare disadvantaged children for primary education. However, the ludic (Huizinga, 1938) element in Sesame Street is much larger than it is in Head Start or Perry Preschool, which comes much closer to ordinary life for a child about to attend school, and Sesame Street also allows for more freedom of participation in play.

Sesame Street is comparable to programs like Head Start and Perry Preschool, also intended to prepare disadvantaged children for primary education.

Kearney and Levine (2015) reason that an analysis of the effectiveness of Sesame Street potentially can also say something about the effectiveness of MOOCs. They come to the conclusion that so little has been studied on MOOCs, that "... any proper evaluation of the impact of electronic transmission of educational content is beneficial." According to their study, students reaching 1st grade are better able to begin their reading curriculum for example, but while attending school, almost all students eventually will have reached a certain level of reading, which makes it hard to measure long-term effects and compare them to the long-term effects of MOOCs.

Bettinger et al. (2016) discuss the effect that peers, next to teachers, have on students who attend (online) courses. According to them, it is possible to research student's behavior online, and measure how peer behavior online affects the performance and attitudes of the students. They used a large data set, concerning nearly 27,000 students who took the courses 'College Skills' and 'Introduction to Psychology' at DeVry University. Their findings provide evidence that: 

"Peer effects can either be productive (e.g. burstiness) or unproductive (e.g. congestion). Creating rules in terms of the length of post[s], the frequency of posting, and encouraging rapid, bursty discussions may improve student engagement and consequently better student outcomes." (Bettinger, Loeb & Taylor, 2014, p.23) 

However, there is a growing body of literature that indicates that the performance of students that attend MOOCs and other online courses, is worse than in traditional face-to-face settings (Bettinger et al., 2015; Hart et al., 2014). Bettinger et al. provide a possible explanation: the lack of engagement in online courses.

Drop-out rates of Massive Online Open Courses

Another problem with MOOCs could be that they require much more intrinsic motivation and self-discipline, since there is less shame among students—who often may not know each other at all—when homework is not done, or courses are failed (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2016). Kaplan and Haenlein propose a framework of five C's to drive intrinsic student motivation. These are commitment, challenge, control, competition, and contemporaneous. Commitment refers to how much effort the students are willing to put into their online education. Challenge focuses on the feasibility of the course for many, but the pace should be adaptable to each student. Control discusses that the more control participants have over their environment, the more likely they are to succeed. The element of competition should make it so that people can be the best of their class, or gain badges or other signs of performing well. Lastly, which I think is a very important and perhaps overlooked element in MOOCs: it should be contemporaneous—up-to-date, up to current affairs—so that the contents of the courses do not feel archaic.

The need for improvement of intrinsic motivation becomes clear when we look at the completion rate of the total number of enrolled students in MOOCs, which is typically less than 10% (Israel, 2015). I believe that there are two sides to this low percentage, a good one and a bad one. First, the good one, which consists just of my reflections: when I was in secondary school, I had to pick a profile, which ended up being Natuur en Techniek (Nature and Technology). This eventually resulted in me attending a track in mechanical engineering  at a Dutch university, which was not my cup of tea—which is why I am now writing this article—and eventually I dropped out. Had I been able to try out a few courses online, I may have found out earlier that my career would not be in engineering, but rather in sociolinguistics. 

My careful prediction is, if research on dropping out from MOOCs would be done, that there would be a fairly high percentage of people who drop out because they thought differently of the course(s). Second, most MOOCs consist of only one course, although there are 'specializations'—as Coursera calls them (Coursera, 2017a)—which consist of multiple courses. One course, or 'only' a few, are much less intensive and expensive than an offline full-time educational track, which makes the decision to quit easier if someone does not have the time or interest to finish the course(s) any longer. It also results in lower debts, compared to when students attend an official educational track and drop out after a year or two, while they still might have learned something—however, the latter argument goes for both on- as well as offline education. 

The Future of Learning?

But still, the dropout rates are extremely high, and it is unlikely that the majority of drop-outs are related to situations that are similar to the one I have just described above. Jordan (2014) found a completion rate of 6.5% of a total of 43,000 enrolled students, which is nearly 2,800 students who completed the course. She concludes that it is misleading to compare enrolment with completion, especially since the enrollment figures are so atypically high. However, the numbers should not be ignored, and other interesting relations between course completion and course length, for example, could be interesting for future MOOC developers (Jordan, 2014). 

Integrating MOOCs in traditional education

If MOOCs, on their own, do not provide enough intrinsic motivation for a larger percentage of students to finish the courses, then maybe it is possible to combine them with traditional, offline, face-to-face education. Israel (2015) finds both opportunities and challenges. Opportunities include that "MOOCs can be used as learning resources, coupling online and in-class components", and the provision of two facilitators: one face-to-face in-class and one online instructor. Another opportunity, adding to its contemporaneity, is that the MOOC can easily be adapted to fit current events. 

Kaplan and Haenlein further add that traditional knowledge dissemination is conducted online (the traditional lecture), and that in-class time is reserved for discussions. MOOCs can also be used for students who have trouble with understanding the course's contents, which reminds me of the disadvantaged children watching Sesame Street, but it could also be implemented for students who have to attend a pre-master, or any other knowledge gap they need to bridge. One last advantage of MOOCs is that they may reduce the work load for teachers, especially when looking at introductory courses (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2016).

But results from an extended study, by Griffiths et al. (2014), showed that the students were expressing lower satisfaction rates due to the decreased time spent on face-to-face interaction with instructors. An equilibrium could be found, between online and offline interaction, but it could be very difficult to fit existing MOOCs to the needs of future students. As Bruff et al. (2013) point out, it is difficult to find MOOCs which sit well with the aspects of coupling and cohesion (in Jordan, 2014). They explain that coupling refers to the dependency (both in type as in extent) between the online and offline class components, and that cohesion "refers to the relatedness of the course content overall" (Bruff et al., 2014, p.195).

From this perspective, physical presence at the campus may decline, but the moments that remain will have more value.

One final problem I will discuss here, is a problem that arises from the Terms of Use of Coursera. Griffiths et al. (2014) discuss that you may not take any "Online Course offered by Coursera or use any Statement of Accomplishment as part of any tuition-based or for-credit certification or program for any college, university, or other academic institution without the express written permission from Coursera" (Griffiths et al. 2014, p. 19). This, among other issues, arising from the Terms of Use, makes it rather difficult to integrate the content of Coursera's MOOCs in traditional education. However, with MOOCs rising, it is likely that companies such as Coursera will continuously update their Terms of Use (Coursera, 2017b), which may make integration of the content easier.

The future of MOOCs

To get an understanding of the value, possibilities and limitations of MOOCs, we need to find answers to a number of questions. I have tried to answer a few of these questions—such as: what is the effectiveness of MOOCs? What are the effects of (the physical absence of) peers and teachers on the motivation of students? And to which extent MOOCs can be integrated in offline education? Considering the recent history of MOOCs and the limited research done, it must be admitted that these questions have been all but answered. However, some light was shed on the issues that we face on embracing MOOCs in the contemporary curricula of students. 

MOOCs came into existence less than ten years ago and although the popularity of them is rising, thorough research still needs to be done to learn more about the effects and implications of MOOCs. By looking at the early years of Sesame Street (Kearney & Levine, 2015), one could infer to some extent that, yes, there is AN effect that can be accounted towards distance learning through a screen, but to which extent this applies for contemporary massive online open courses, is yet hard to tell. 


From Sesame Street to (the integration of) MOOCs, we really seem to be a generation that has grown up by learning through screens. But learning through screens comes with its challenges, and requires more self-discipline and intrinsic motivation from the student learning. But as students get confronted with a huge variety of external stimuli (e.g. social media, friends, games, etc.) they are facing a huge challenge when it comes to maintaining this self-discipline. It is therefore important that the engagement and other factors that keep the student's attention, are extremely well-groomed by MOOC developers, and apply to the student's needs and desires.

Learning through screens comes with its challenges, and requires more self-discipline and intrinsic motivation from the student learning.

In the end, I am convinced that offline courses can benefit substantially from additional content of massive online open courses. Even when developers would be able to develop MOOCs that offer the same knowledge transfer that offline courses provide, offline courses would not become obsolete, and therefore the two can only be complementary to each other. Kaplan and Haenlein compare it to the dropped sales numbers of CDs after the introduction of MP3s and streaming services, which are complemented by the live shows performed by the artists. "Watching a star such as Britney Spears live on stage will always be better than seeing her on YouTube–—and the same will be true for online distance learning." (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2012) From this perspective, physical presence on campus may decline, but the moments that remain will have more value.


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