MOOC Participants vs. Regular University Students

“No such thing, bad student. Only bad teacher.”
Mr. Miyagi in “Karate Kid”

While I have downloaded the lecture videos of about 20 courses, I have regularly taken and finished only two. The first two MOOC courses I ever took were really well done and it was a joy to finish them. However, I had bad luck with a couple of the following ones. The ones after the first two were poorly planned and/or lacked a coherent didactic concept.

To make matters worse, these bad courses spoiled the MOOC experience for me — a little. I downloaded a couple of lectures of other, better done, courses, but the initial energy, the joy of learning was gone.

And I think that’s the worst thing a MOOC can do. There is a lot of criticism against formal education, brought to the point by this nice quotation:

“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”
Albert Einstein

However, there is no reason that MOOCs cannot ‘achieve’ the same.

On the positive side, this experience also pointed me to the differences between a typical MOOC participant and a regular university student.

Sure, it is much easier to switch to other courses in a MOOC. There is no need to take a course to earn credits. But there is also a difference in motivation — and tolerance for bullshit. Students take the courses, because they want to learn and they get angry when their time is wasted — and they are not swayed by big names. They are less interested in the reputation of the university but in what they get out of it. They do not actually visit the university and are a student of that university (will all possibilities of incidental learning), they can only take a course there. This directly points to the issue of “Well, what did you get out of this course?”

Coursera and Co. might advertise with “prestigious universities”, but I think this is not so relevant for students. And just because it’s a well-known university does not mean that they have great lecturers. After all, Academia focuses more on publication than on teaching (and at least in Germany, university ‘teachers’ have no education in teaching).

So, I think that this is probably the main difference between MOOC participants and regular university students: The MOOC participants want to learn something but they expect exceptionally good teaching. While regular students are often more concerned with grades, these are not that relevant for MOOC participants. To make matters worse (for universities; it’s actually good for learning) they cannot be controlled by grades. A regular university student might hesitate to criticize the teaching style of his/her professor — due to the justified fear that the professor might retaliate via the grades (not all professors are like this, but enough to make this a likely issue). A MOOC participant does not have these kinds of concerns. It’s not (only) the more anonymous nature of participating in a MOOC or that they are usually older than university students, it’s the freedom that comes when you are not dependent on grades. They have no need to cower before great names or universities — they want to be taken seriously and be challenged by the content, not the deficits in the teaching style.

And that might be one of the main benefits of MOOCs — if they are integrated in university teaching this kind of feedback might actually improve university teaching. At least for those at the university who not only teach but are also willing to learn.

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