Top 5 Issues With MOOCs

In case you’ve been living in isolation, MOOCs burst onto the education scene a couple of years ago with great fanfare, big investor hopes, and big promises to learners, professors and schools.

The MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) is an online course that is open to the public for free. The hope is to attract student participation on a grandiose scale. While recently garnering publicity, due in large part to participation from professors at brand name schools agreeing to share their high value lecture content with the world, MOOCs are one of the many recent developments in online learning.

The first few were created around 2008 in conjunction with connectivist theory.  Connectivist theory attributes learning and knowledge to the many connections and relationships formed during the educational experience. The delivery methodology, however, is still reminiscent of the programmed learning practices that have been in use for many decades, modernized by the proliferation of improving technology and savvy users.

In 2011-2012 MOOC platforms like Coursera, Udacity, and edX began to attract large investments, hoping to generate publicity and cash in on the growing tech savvy student population. Many of these MOOC companies began to seek out relationships with higher education institutions the world over. Despite all of the funding and publicity, there are still a multitude of critics who believe that the MOOC is destined to under-achieve; destined to fail in revolutionizing education for the masses. In order to learn more about why these platforms might not reach their full projected potential, we researched what users and reviewers were saying and tried some out ourselves.

Here is our list of the Top 5 Issues With MOOCs:

Low Completion Rates

The typical MOOC enrollment size can range anywhere from 10-180k students per course section, with 180k being on the extreme high-end. Most popular courses register about 50k students on average. One of the biggest problems with MOOCs is that so far the courses have had incredibly low completion rates – most are under 10% ( Students are simply not likely to finish a course, but why?

In a more traditional College or University, it is less likely that students will fail to complete a course. Sometimes students withdraw from courses or drop courses before the add/drop deadlines when they can still get their money back. When signing up for a MOOC course, it’s free, and there’s little to no reward for completion. A certificate of completion has proven not to be a strong incentive to complete the coursework. The 10% who actually do complete the work must be the students who are determined to learn.

Clearly, the low completion rate signals that MOOCs are having a problem with continued student engagement. There is no obligation, deterrent or penalty to motivate students to complete courses. Also, like trying on shoes, many just don’t fit so we leave them in the store.

Lack of One-on-One Teaching and Interaction

In a class with 50,000 students, there is not a lot of opportunity to get face time with your professor, as you might in a traditional environment. Thus students are left to their own devices with minimal guidance, little to no interaction, and no answers when stuck. It’s easy to see how a student may get frustrated searching for answers online or waiting for someone to answer a forum post. It stands to reason: most students who thrive on personalized attention and feedback from their teachers would have a difficult time with the MOOC concept.

The Socratic learning method and other inquiry-based models have long been staples of modern education, for good reason. Students often require personal interaction or personalized attention from their teachers, and MOOCs simply cannot provide this on an adequate enough level to compete with the traditional classroom experience.  With these massive online courses, it’s very difficult for students to create any type of lasting bond or relationship with a professor or peer. This means that teachers will have a much more difficult time gauging and responding to the individual needs of their students. Some students may be happy working on their own and do not need the re-enforcement of teachers, mentors or peers. The rest of us are destined for loneliness.

A.J. Jacobs said it best, discussing his experience with MOOCs in a recent opinion piece for the NY Times: “The first thing I learned? When it comes to Massive Open Online Courses like those offered by Coursera, Udacity and edX, you can forget about the Socratic Method.” (

Integrity (AKA Cheating)

A lack of personal attention from the teachers and TAs can also lead to an increase in cheating amongst students.  The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2011 that cheating was rampant on the MOOC platform Coursera: “Some classes were so rife with alleged incidences of plagiarism that professors have been forced to plead with their students to stop plagiarizing.” (

Also, some of Coursera’s discussion boards have been reported to contain debates between students about whether plagiarism is acceptable.  Without the threat of disciplinary action (the loss of attempted course credits and beyond), some MOOC students are actually making a case for cheating and plagiarism.  As long as this is occurring within the MOOC environment, these types of courses will never be taken seriously within the higher education systems of the United States and abroad.

Accredited institutions which in essence “vouch” for the integrity of their students would be hard pressed to support the notion that the thoughts and ideas of others belong to the collective, and no published author or teacher needs to be credited.  Is there a MOOC course on Intellectual Property and Copyright standards out there?  How about a course on “Ethics?”

No Accreditation

One of the most crucial issues with MOOCs is that they have no way of offering credits for the completion of their courses.  There is no incentive or deterrent system that supports a serious consideration of the value of completing a course.

Accreditation is a complicated process: recognized accrediting bodies determine which schools are eligible for accreditation, as a reward for proving that their courses are actually effective with students. Completing courses earns students credits, which are necessary to earn a degree; the only real currency in the employment marketplace.

Despite the fact that a few traditional Universities with strong reputations have begun to accept and embrace the social importance of MOOCS, they are staunchly opposed to offering course credits for free.  The New York Times reported that Washington University was rumored to have been offering credits for their Coursera courses, but then the University Provost Szatmary clarified that they were not, in fact, offering credits for MOOC courses saying “We likely could not create a course that would offer credit for 100,000 people, out of the box.  We wouldn’t have the instructional resources for that.” (

Can you blame them? Why would a College or University offer course credit for free? Universities and Colleges are in fact businesses that need to generate revenue by offering credits to students, so we can hardly expect them to offer credits for free.  Accreditation allows students to receive a degree, and obtaining a degree for completed coursework is the most common way to demonstrate proficiency in a given field.  Accreditation is the value proposition; monetary and reputational which are offered to students.  Employers set market values on students with “credentials” as vouched for by accredited institutions. When was the last time your employer stated that their talent acquisition strategy was to hire the best and the brightest as measured by certificates of completion?  True, there are many dropout millionaires, and there always will be, but the economic system may not be ready for an academic system with no controls.

Intellectual Property Issues

Many of those involved with MOOCs (course creators, professors, schools, and critics) have also raised concerns over the intellectual property and ownership rights of course content.  Most of these platforms have some language in their terms of service that Colleges and Universities should certainly be wary of.  In fact, most of these platforms actually claim ownership to the content uploaded to their sites ( Many teachers, content authors, and even schools, find it very alarming that MOOCs are attempting to control the sharing of scholarly course material.  This is one of the frameworks of higher education: teachers and professors want to be able to own their content and course curriculum (even under partnership agreements with employers), and they want to have the freedom to publish and share their work.

These 5 issues are interwoven into a fabric that may not wear as well as initially hyped. Yet while there is considerable doubt about whether MOOCs can revolutionize the American education system, they do offer many positive benefits and are raising awareness about the power of online education. The development of Massive Online Open Courses is an exciting advancement for online education, because it demonstrates that technology is facilitating global reach.

The initial premise is valid in that they have the potential to help students learn outside of traditional schooling. They can serve as the new dynamic op-eds on given topics (by well known authorities), and supplemental tools to traditional learning methods. Arguably the most important change is that MOOCs are driving future generations to consider education as a hobby, outside of traditional work and learning environments.

As MOOCs become more popular, we are seeing more and more graduates from traditional schools take on extra coursework in areas beyond their normal fields. Whatever the reasons are for this increase in supplemental MOOC learning (learning as a hobby, to learn a new field of study etc.), it is clearly an exciting advancement.

Most importantly, this technology is helping to deliver education to learners in parts of the world who could not otherwise afford or gain access to top University content. The diffusion of coursework from top Universities for free to massive audiences will only help to better educate future populations. But will the current iteration of MOOCs revolutionize the education system in America and abroad? Or will they continue to butt heads with the prevailing value propositions of capitalistic economic systems and traditional education institutions? Unless MOOCs can solve these 5 major issues, it is likely we will only see more of the latter.