MOOCs: Some Attendance Required


While I am in favor of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), I also think that for all the positivity there is a way in which we tend to gloss over some of the sticking points for the approach and the negative impacts privileging the digital over the actual can have on faculty at a given institution.

As the beginning of a talking point, consider the above infographic. Consider what the percentages of students enrolled who do not finish mean, or don’t mean. And now think about what would happen to an in-person course that had 64%-98% of the class drop out or not finish the course.

While it is fabulous to be able to reach people who otherwise cannot be reached, there is a risk that this approach will and has been used to reduce the number faculty at a given institution. In 2013, for example, this conversation was being held out in California as concerns the replacement of in person courses with the online “equivalents”. However, one of the things I think crucial to this conversation goes beyond accessibility of courses to the rigor and presentation of the courses. If you have 100k+ students in the course, how are they supposed to learn to write? How are they supposed to get actual, individualized feedback that is intended to bolster their progress in a given field? Even while the courses, such as in the article I linked to earlier, would be intro level courses, is that not where we are trying to lay the foundation for as concerns future scholars, academics, and practitioners in the given fields?

I want to acknowledge that these hiccups were probably not intended by the folks who came up with the MOOC idea. In fact, this article from the WSJ with Daphne Koller co-founder of Coursera indicates that they see it (sometimes) as being something in addition to traditional classes and coursework. But what matters more: intent or impact?

To bring this back to the infographic at the beginning, I think that in someways it can be used to support my thesis but I also think it is misleading. To me, MOOCs allow folks who are interested in a subject to dabble in it without fear of failing a course or having to invest a lot of money. They also allow folks who have the limitations to experience a subject in a way that, otherwise, they may never get to do traditionally or due to their location, job, ability, or financial constraints. For these folks, and even those in “traditional” programs MOOCs can be a benefit, but I share the concerns others have about them being used to supplant, as opposed to supplement, in-person and small class size courses.

Of course, I also fully support people taking MOOCs in philosophy so here is a link to a list of them:



One thought on “MOOCs: Some Attendance Required”

  1. I think you make a fair point on the content, but I think the idea that so many people are exposed to material in these courses is still pretty amazing. Even a 2% completion rate for 226,000 students still means 5,200 people getting exposed to new ideas in that 12-week span. Given the right context (eg courses that don’t claim to be all-encompassing, but serve as a gateway to further knowledge) I think it makes for an excellent starting point that might get people excited about pursuing further knowledge. I agree though, that these shouldn’t be used to supplant traditional courses, but they might make excellent stepping stones to even online-only smaller courses for the people who come out and truly want to learn more.

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