To MOOC or Not to MOOC…

(Administrator’s note: This is a guest post by Ken Coley, who serves as Professor of Christian Education and Director of Ed.D. Studies at Southeastern Seminary.)

To MOOC, or not to MOOC, that is the question:

Whether ‘tis nobler for college presidents to suffer

The slings and arrows of an outrageous economy

Or to use technology against a sea of troubles,

And by MOOCing, end them.

(a paraphrase of Hamlet, Act III, sc 1)

Poor Hamlet was torn between two painful choices—he could stick around and suffer the indignities of his father’s murder and mother’s remarriage to his uncle, his father’s murderer, or he could end his life and escape the agony. (Hence the choice, “To be or not to be…”) Unfortunately for him, he chose to procrastinate and not take any action, other than running around Elsinore Castle acting crazy. Fast forward to the 21st century and the sea of troubles that University leaders find themselves in … mounting costs and shrinking enrollment. Traditional brick and mortar campuses gathering dust while Internet classrooms bustle. Trustees pulling one way, while faculties dig in their heels and refuse to go anywhere. Enter the MOOC option … massive open online courses. A recent editorial poses the tension this way:

Millions have enrolled. Thousands have completed. MOOCs are raising as much excitement outside the academy as trepidation and antipathy within it. Whether blended into an in-person class, or as standalone online offerings, MOOCs threaten to accelerate the postwar trend toward “casualization” of the teaching profession, rendering some professors “glorified teaching assistants” even as they turn others into “rock stars.”

What’s a college leader to do—run around acting crazy? This reflection will first look briefly at the ‘not to MOOC’ and summarize some of the harsh criticism directed at this movement. Next, the arguments in favor of this new approach to education will be presented. The essay will conclude with a personal application about how this new comer to the virtual world can potentially influence teachers world-wide.


Kamenetz, cited above, goes on to raise a compelling question, “What about learning?”  She argues, “Many observers have noted the irony that in their current form, xMOOCs seem to be loosely modeled after the least interesting instructional modes of the age of mass higher education.” These inferior pedagogies include video clips showing a professor lecturing, short multiple-choice quizzes, small amounts of reading, and final exams and papers.

Another educator introduces additional criticism: “MOOCs have been criticized on many counts: for being an ineffective mode of instruction; for their high attrition rates; and their problematic handling assessment.” Another educator traces the coining of the term back to two Canadian professors in 2008, who were in search of a new methodology to accompany their classroom instruction. Unlike this original vision of the MOOC, however, Bady argues that “If the MOOC began in the classroom as an experimental pedagogy, it has swiftly morphed into a process driven from the top down, imposed on faculty by university administrators, or even imposed on administrators by university boards of trustees and regents.”


This educator would like to present three compelling reasons to institute MOOCs at every school and university:


In a time period when knowledge is expanding at warp speed and the indebtedness related to college tuition has surpassed the sum total of all credit card debt in the US, there is a moral compunction to open wide the doors of academia for all to come in, at least for a visit. Koh points out, “Yet its supporters claim that MOOCs are an important intervention into the skyrocketing rates of college tuition, and champion the ability of MOOCs to offer much-needed instruction to impoverished people around the world.”

Such is the case when one enters the lecture hall of Michael Sandel of Harvard University. His MOOC entitled Justice is open to anyone who can access his videos on YouTube. The course information includes: No prerequisites, no recommended background, no peer assessments, no team projects, and (this is interesting) a free exam. His captivating lecture style and snappy interaction with his college students make for interesting viewing.

 An Introduction to Your Institution

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary is less than one year into an experiment—introduce anyone who may have a passing interest in theological studies to SEBTS through a MOOC taught by our President. Some in the faculty are uncomfortable, even afraid for their jobs, if this really catches on. To date 2,500 signed up for the first semester and almost double that number have enrolled for the next offering. Our goal, in addition to inspiring others to enjoy delving into God’s Word in a scholarly fashion, is to bring new students to Southeastern through the front door of MOOC.

High Quality/Low Tech/Low Impact

A third positive aspect of MOOC, when it is done well, is that the participants in the online experience usually get the best the university has to offer while only needing a basic Internet connection and access to YouTube. Also, viewers are not required to meet traditional course requirements such as class attendance at particular times, heavy reading assignments, and intimidating tests.

This last ‘positive’ is also viewed as a negative. Conrad and Donaldson maintain, “The involvement of the learner in the course, whether one calls it interaction, engagement, or building community, is critical if an online course is to be more than a lecture-oriented course in which interaction is primarily between the learner and the content or the learner and the instructor.”* So educators will continue to wrestle with this tension between lecturing to a sea of listeners who lack a close connection to the learning experience and the absence of methodologies that produce deeper learning. But technology educator Cathy Davidson is very hopeful.

We are taking baby steps with the medium right now, and, fortunately, a lot of dedicated, earnest, serious thinkers are asking what MOOCs can teach us about learning so that these first steps will help us taking gigantic, important leaps in the future.  We are collecting the data, keystroke by keystroke, that will help us understand more and more about what modes of learning work in what situation and for whom.  We will soon know more about what motivates students to stay in a course, what makes them drop (the MOOC dropout rate tends to be very high), what motivates them to learn in the first place?  What motivates them to form peer discussion groups, online or off, around course content?  How many go from an introductory course to a deeper one–and why?  In other words, the quantity of data and the increasing sophistication with which we, aided by the machine, can read and analyze and parse and visualize data, means that we are learning more about the minutia of learning now than we have ever known before.

Future application

For the past 25 years this educator has spent many hours traveling around the US, Canada, and Latin America teaching a variety of topics related to teaching. Most recently, I was honored to spend five days modeling for forty Cuban educators how to be better at their craft, specifically through the use of active learning techniques. Non-educators who teach the Bible on a weekly basis here in North Carolina and around the world desire to be more effective teachers. It is a new dream for me to design a MOOC that will be available for anyone who wants to learn more about the teaching-learning process and be introduced to approaches that engage learners.

In conclusion this educator wants to return to Denmark and our troubled prince. Unfortunately, young Hamlet failed to take action until it was too late, and he perished along with four others in the final scene. We must not fail to act for the sake of the health of our institutions, but more importantly, for the sake of humanity who longs to hear our message of hope.


* See Rita-Marie Conrad and J. Ana Donaldson, Engaging the Online Learner: Activites and Resources for Creative Instruction (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), pp. 4-5.




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