MOOCs & The Secret Garden


For those who have been following trends in higher education, the term MOOCs (pronunciation: muk) is not foreign anymore but for some people it is still kind of clouded in mystery. A simple google search using ‘MOOC’ as a keyword turned up 2.4 million hits and when searched using the full acronym ‘Massive Open Online Courses’ it gave a massive 24 million hits! Mind-boggling indeed! If the number of hits can be used as a simple measure of popularity then perhaps we can surmise that MOOCs is a phenomenon that have a potential to disrupt the education world and will bring about significant impact on achieving “Education for All” movement of the United Nation. This article is my attempt to deciphering and demystifying MOOCs. Note that this is my personal view on MOOCs (not that of USM or CDAE) and I must say that I’m inclined towards supporting it because I liked its underlying philosophy. That said, I'm not a MOOCs cheerleader or its fan boy — I keep an open mind on this evolving phenomenon — but yes, I'm a MOOC student (albeit a lazy one) and I want MOOCs to stay alive because I'm always hungry to seek new knowledge, freely (or with nominal cost) and at my own pace.

The Trail Blazers — MIT’s OCW and UNESCO’s OERs

Clayton M. Christensen in his book, "The Innovator’s Dilemma" noted that for a long time, innovation-driven transformations have been largely absent or almost non-existent in the education. Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder, also echoed the same concern in the interview with Times magazine back in 2006, he said, “In almost every area of human endeavor, the practice improves over time…that hasn't been the case for teaching”. I agree with both of them on the lack of disruptive or mega innovation in education in general and in higher education in particular. However, there is a wind of change (reminds me of the Scorpion’s song) in recent years because we hear more and more buzzwords such as Web 2.0, social media, OCW, OER, and the latest one, MOOCs. These terms have been the focus of mainstream media on education including educational websites and blogs. It’s a clear sign that the landscape of the open education movement is changing everyday and is gaining strong momentum world over.

MOOCs may not be a real ‘disruptive innovation’ as defined originally by Christensen but some of these innovations are real game changer in higher education. It started back in 2001 when MIT introduced their Open Courseware (OCW) project with the aim of widening access to knowledge and information. The initiative is considered a runaway success because over the past 12 years or so, the project has grown by leaps and bounds — from 50 published courses to over 2,000 and it has been reported that to date, there have been 122 million views by 87 million visitors from nearly every country across the globe. Today there are approximately 281 universities around the world that are part of the OCW Consortium. Two Malaysian universities, UTM and UM have already joined as member of the Consortium (congratulations!) and it is expected that more Malaysian universities will join the bandwagon.

On another front, UNESCO and Commonwealth of Learning (COL) took the OCW initiative further by introducing Open Educational Resources (OER) and together they spur and expedite an international movement in support of OERs. The term Open Educational Resources (OER) was coined at a 2002 UNESCO Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education. In 2012, Paris OER Declaration was formally adopted at the World Open Educational Resources (OER) Congress held at the UNESCO. The Declaration marks a historic moment in the growing movement for Open Educational Resources and calls on governments worldwide to openly license publicly funded educational materials for public use.

MOOCs — New kid on the block

Another phenomenon gathering momentum over the past two years or so is Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. MOOCs are simply online courses aimed at large-scale participation and open (free) access via internet. They are similar to university courses, but currently do not tend to offer academic credit. The whole idea of MOOCs is to empower interested learners from around the globe who lack access to higher education.

The term MOOCs has increasingly been very popular that even the Oxford dictionary has included it as an entry — defined as “a course of study made available over the Internet without charge to a very large number of people”. MOOCs actually emerged from OCW and OER initiatives and drew on a long and established history of distance learning. In terms of MOOCs and OER, “open” means free to access and use, whereas “open” in open universities means anyone can be a student. The MOOCs, for the first time, created a widespread public awareness of the possible connections between OER and affordable, high quality education.

MOOCs are now being offered through various providers, the more popular one are Cousera, EdX, Udacity, and more recently FutureLearn.

To MOOCs or not to MOOCs?

Yasser  S. Abu-Mostafa, a professor at Caltec and MOOC instructor on Machine Learning made an excellent analysis on the role of MOOCs (see To MOOC or not to MOOC). He quoted there main and interrelated roles:
  • MOOCs as a mean to reach out global learners, i.e., taking down the physical barrier and open access to the university course beyond the classroom and make it affordable;
  • MOOCs as a mean to change the format of delivery, i.e., using the flipped classroom model. This would mean shifting from the traditional 50 minutes lecture and allow more time for engaging the students in meaningful discussion in the classroom;
  • MOOCs as a tool to collect huge data on learning behavior and pattern. This would complement other emerging areas such as learning analytics and adaptive learning, collecting big data for the purpose of designing more effective and adaptive teaching strategies.
As with other new things, MOOCs have their supporters and their skeptics. Anything at the early stage of implementation is expected to have pitfalls and shortcomings. MOOCs is just like a kid learning to ride a bicycle, still trying to do the balancing act. At the moment MOOCs are ridden by some issues that need to be addressed.

Some people are just taken by surprise at the explosion of MOOCs phenomenon and naturally they prefer to sit still and observe. Why all that buzz about MOOCs all of a sudden? It started just a couple of years ago when Stanford professor, Sebastian Thrun, drew 160,000 students from around the globe to his free online course on artificial intelligence, starting a conversation about the coming wave of free online education. But despite claims that free online courses would revolutionize education, the New York Times reported that initial results for large-scale courses are rather disappointing. It was made even more sensational when recently Thrun himself admitted that his company’s (Udacity) products are lousy.

I think it’s not the fault of the MOOCs provider but rather MOOCs have been hyped a lot by the media. Maybe it is too much too call MOOCs as a revolution or even to talk about the prospect of MOOCs to replace a university. After all, there have been online courses and free lectures available on the internet for quite a while.

One of the main issues of contention about MOOCs is the completion rate is rather low (7 to 10%). To the skeptics this is an obvious failure. Flopped! Is it? Let’s look from the positive perspective. Let say only 10% of 50,000 learners in a course I'm currently following (on critical thinking offered by Duke University) complete the course, that's still 5,000 successful learners! By comparison, I teach 3 courses in one academic session, let say 200 students in total. It will take me approximately 25 years to teach 5,000 students! Those 7 to 10% ‘loyal’ students that successfully completed the MOOCs are those who really wanted to learn. The thing is, people will learn if they are MOTIVATED to learn. They must have reason to learn the subject/topic. Isn’t that the principle of adult learners? Let me quote Eric Jensen, "There's no such thing as unmotivated students, but there are students in unmotivated state".

We should not forget the fact that MOOCs are still very much in its infancy. After all, Rome wasn't built in a day. Likewise, the airplane was not invented overnight, but the Wright brothers persisted in developing the flying machines despite repeated failures.

Let me quote Thomas Edison. "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work". In the same breath, MOOCs have not failed but the providers such as Cousera, Edx and others have found 10,000 ways that didn’t work (grossly exaggerated). But if they persevere, just like Thomas Edison did, they might just find the right way to light up the MOOC bulb. Just like the modern civilization benefited from the 10,000 failures of Thomas Edison, the grand children of the sceptics (and the proponents) may one day the beneficiary of MOOC and obtain an accredited degree on, maybe, USMcera platform! I like the idea!

I think the success or failure of MOOCs will very much depend on the application of teaching and learning strategies that are firmly based and anchored on the proven learning theories and practices. This is the area that needs more attention and perhaps very challenging. Many years ago distance learning and online learning were ridiculed as well, and still are in some circles, because of poor instructional design, poor delivery/facilitation and/or poor instructor and learner support not because the technology is bad. Of course it’s easier said than done. One critical area is assessment — how to assess the work of 100,000 online students?

Yes, most of the pedagogy in this first generation of MOOCs is simply the large lecture class delivered online. Well, if only we allow MOOC to grow and learn to walk first… At the moment, we don't really know what the second or third generation of MOOCs might look like, any more than the Wright Brothers or Glenn Curtiss understood how a 747 was going to work. They knew that there was going to be something like that; they just couldn't begin to build it themselves.

Yet sceptics still dismiss MOOC as just another passing trend. They say MOOCs have no sustainable business model, costing lots but earning little. However, I think it's too early to draw definite conclusions. The potential for this model to realize the "education for all" is profound but educators and leaders need to roll up their sleeves and explore more viable formats/structures/programs the enable us to move forward.

I think MOOC is now following Gartner “Hype Cycle” of experimentation, adaptation and adoption. It is now just passing the 'peak of inflated expectations' and going through the 'trough of disillusionment'. MOOC is still traveling on the path of innovation. Maybe what we are seeing now is the end of a beginning.

Time to Reveal the Secret Garden?

For a long time we treat our classroom as our "secret garden". Nobody really knows what's going on in the classroom. Everything that happens in the classroom is between the teacher and the students within the confine of the physical boundary of the classroom. By and large, I can assure you, it is just 50 minutes talk and talk and talk and…Try to follow one course on Cousera and feel the difference! If only we can see MOOC in positive light as a mean to transform our practice, not to replace but to complement the face-to-face, i.e, blended learning. Don't be too quick to jump on the bandwagon of the sceptics if we have not seen and experience the MOOCs — not just jumping at any opportunity to ridicule it!

One great advantage of taking our course out of the secret garden and put it on MOOCs platform is the opportunity to get continuous feedback from students and peers in the same subject matter. If the same process of peer review has long been used for publication in peer-reviewed journal to ensure quality, why can’t we use the same process to gauge the quality of our course? I have personally received hundreds of email (feedback) from people around the world on my YouTube lecture videos although they are scattered and not yet structured into a coherent package (as a course). I have even received a chocolate from someone in Vienna as a token of appreciation! I’m sure the MOOC professors have great stories to share too.

A surprise gift (chocolate) sent to me from Vienna as a token of appreciation.

I salute the MOOC practitioners — they are the trail blazers! They come out from their comfort zone and dare to take the challenge of reaching out global learners beyond the boundary of their classroom rather than just continuing doing business as usual — just another sage on the stage in their own secret garden. MOOCs may not be the unique saviour of the education system but it doesn’t mean the MOOC phenomenon will just die. Failures are to be expected, not celebrated!

MOOCS, ROI and Business Models

Eventually, even with all the good intention of MOOCs, someone will ask, can universities or any MOOCs providers make money out of MOOCs? What is the return of investment (ROI)? This ROI thing is inevitably always a favorite and persistent question especially from administrators and skeptics. That's a fair question, of course.

The original intention of MOOCs is to provide free access to education but if educational organisation or any providers want to generate revenue from MOOCs there may be several business models that can be adopted. Prospective MOOCs providers may opt one of these models:
•    Government funding for developing and running MOOCs
•    Payment for complementary services
•    Certification

Cousera, one of the popular MOOCs provider, uses the certification model. For example, currently I’m taking a course offered by Duke University. If I follow the course until the 8th week, do all the assignments and participate actively in the forum I will be awarded the Certificate of Accomplishment. I have also the option to take the examination by paying a nominal fee of USD39.00 and if I passed I will be awarded the Verified Certificate.

For further exploration of MOOC business models see Money Models for MOOCs by Chrysanthos Dellarocas, Marshall Van Alstyne.

Actually there are many platforms available if we want to make money by conducting academic or vocational courses. One  of my favorites is Udemy — anyone can offer a course on Udemy, for free or for a fee. Last year Udemy reported a few instructors made a few hundred thousand dollars. I conduct one course on this platform for free. Not that many students, only 354. Hardly qualify for MOOCs but who cares, it's all about reaching learners outside the physical boundary of the university. That's what we call the scholarship of teaching and learning in real sense—sharing and disseminating knowledge. Have a look at my course on Udemy.

Money matters aside, let me put the ROI in a different light. I would say the immediate ROI would be learning itself, also the benefit of collaboration and networking. And if we talk about POSITIONING and VISIBILITY, what a better and convenient way to do it by having our courses (preferably our niches) freely accessible by the masses. Is that not enough ROI?

There is another form of ROI — the improvement in the quality of online course in the form of structure and delivery. This can happen in two ways: better course design and continuous students and peer feedback. Professors or instructors who embark on MOOCs will inevitably be more concious of how they would conduct the course because it will be seen by not only a few thousand students enrolled in the course but also educators in the same subject matter. They must ensure they get the facts right, explain the concept clearly and design the course structure in the best possible way to increase clarity and understanding. The reputation of the professor and the institution is at stake. It has been reported, on average, it takes between 6 to 9 months of preparation to design a course suitable for MOOCs format. This include preparation of the video, assignment and learning activities. As for the feedback I have already elaborated above.

Back to positioning and visibility, let me share my own personal experience (note: please don’t misconstrued this as boasting). I have about 80 pieces of recorded video lectures on YouTube. Just search 'karim' and 'usm' on YouTube and you will find some of those videos. The top video (almost 40,000 views from more than 50 countries) was my 20 minutes presentation on the production of palm oil. The total estimated duration watched is 79,401 minutes (approx 1,323 hours). Well, I leave it to your imagination to estimate the ROI in terms of learning!

MOOCs — My Own Personal Experience

My experience with MOOCs is limited to a few courses I enrolled on Cousera platform. Cousera offers 621 courses on its platform. You can find a range of technical and non-technical courses offered by 108 Coursera partners. After signed up, you can search or browse the course offerings categorized by subject matter such as business, agriculture, etc.

I enrolled in my first MOOCs last year (2013), a course entitled ‘Foundation of Teaching for Learning, Part 1’ conducted by Commonwealth Education Trust and offered on Cousera platform. I always yearn to learn more about the proper pedagogical approach because I don’t have a formal training in education and because of my ever burning desire to improve students’ learning. Unfortunately, I didn’t complete the course due to my hectic work schedule (excuses) and unwittingly contributed to the statistics of 90% attrition rate. I missed the second and third part but I enroll again and currently following the fourth part of the course.

I also enrolled in another course on Cousera, ‘Think Again: How to Reason and Argue’, offered by Duke University. This course is very well designed and structured.

What’s more interesting is this course is part of 3-course package namely, reasoning, data analysis and writing. For a nominal fee, Cousera offers the students to earn the Specialization Certificate by completing the so-called Signature Track for all 3 courses and the Capstone project. (Note: Learn more about Signature Track).

Basically students are required to watch a series of recorded lectures and take quizzes or similar activities to demonstrate their understanding of the material. Students may also be encouraged to participate in discussion forums or engage in interactive online activities, depending on the subject matter, but these activities are not compulsory. There is very little or almost no direct interaction with the instructor or professor. It is essentially self-paced, independent study but with opportunity to get help and feedback from fellow students.

So is it effective to learn this way? Well, as I have said earlier, people will learn if they are MOTIVATED to learn. Of course, good course design and delivery would help to motivate students and keep their interest in the course to wanting to learn more. There is a nice feeling in MOOCs that you are part of the big learning community. Imagine in the course ‘Think again…’ there are 50,000 students and even if just a quarter of them actively participate in the forum you can imagine the amount of exchanges and flow of ideas that sometimes can make you feel overwhelmed. The main reason I’m still following the course is simply my strong interest in the topic, and perhaps the only reason I’m compelled and determined to complete this course. The rest — the course design, the dynamic delivery, etc., are just the icing on the cake.

I would advise those new to MOOCs to read experiences of other MOOC students or alumni. This article (, aptly titled “How to Survive MOOC in 5 Easy Steps” is a good place to start.

Closing Remarks

I don’t believe MOOCs have failed. They may not satisfy the ambitious and exaggerated claims of their pioneers, but they are already enhancing education for thousands of students around the globe. My limited MOOCs experience is sufficient to convince me that we should support it despite its pitfalls in the current form of implementation. Educators should grab the opportunity to open the secret garden and step out from their classroom for the benefit of the learning society.

Learn More about OER and MOOCs

My friend, Zaid Ali Alsagoff (see 'Top e-Learning Mover & Shaker' in the World!) has published excellent presentations on MOOCs on Slideshare. Have a look.


  1. I would love to say thanks for your efforts you have ever put in writing this wonderful blog.


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