MOOCs are ineffective at training


Are MOOCs ineffective at training? I think so.

Okay, well, if we’re going to be pedantic, I think some MOOCs are ineffective. I don’t think I can even say “most” because, well, I haven’t taken “most” MOOCs.

I should also clarify further: I’m discussing MOOCs that are professional skill topics, not the academic-for-fun courses.

But, the title pulled you in, right? Why? Do you agree with me? Did you come to argue? Are you wondering if all the time you just spent feeling guilty over not completing that one course was wasted because the course was probably ineffective anyways?

Well, let’s talk about it.

The Learning Objectives Suck

This post was inspired by these terrible learning objectives I ran across in Coursera’s Communication in the 21st Century Workplace course.

CCvHA6gVIAAp75GThese learning objectives make me want to bash my head in. For example, let’s look at the objective “describe benefits of effective communication in the workplace.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be able to describe the benefits. I want to be able to effectively communicate with others… and that’s not even a learning objective.

If I could rewrite these learning objectives, they would be something along the lines of

Communicate effectively with others in the workplace by:

  • Adapting your communication style depending on your audience
  • Adapting your communication style depending on the communication medium, such as virtual or in person
  • Resolving common communication obstacles with others

“But Rachel, as long as the content is good, then why does it matter?” Because learning objectives shape the training. The original learning objectives were not action or task based, and the course suffers.

But I’m not here to bash that particular course (and truly, it’s not the worst, it could be just so much better), so let’s continue.

Read: Why you want to focus on actions, not learning objectives

The Content Is Presented WeaKly

Originally, this heading said “the content is weak.” But that’s not true. The content is usually good. Great, even. But it’s presented weakly. It suffers from lots of little bits of content, lack of practice… and well, sometimes even just bad presentation skills.

Lots of Little Bits of Content

I recently finished Open2Study’s Writing for the Web course. It was a 4 week course intended for beginners. I thought I was going in to learn about writing effectively, with perhaps some sprinkling of SEO and UI.


I learned quite a bit about UI and SEO and web design and agency strategies and… the list goes on. There was a lot of great information. There was also a lot of subjects. In the end, I learned very little about a whole lot.

Lots of little bits of content seems to be a common theme, which I can understand the tendency towards. “These are free courses for beginners right? Let’s pack in as many subjects as possible about this one topic so that they get a nice rounded view of the whole thing.”

Or let’s not. Let’s instead focus on giving the learner information they can walk away with and apply immediately. Then the learner can come back and learn more, but at least they’ve started.

Read: Science of Learning 101: The Case for Less… Generally

Where’s the Practice?

I’m going to return to the Communication in the Workplace course. You would think there would be some actual example videos of communication in the workplace, right? …right?


As a learner in that MOOC, I don’t see the discussed strategies in action, or even a glimpse of a real conversation. But the module is even called Communication in the Workplace!

Rather than just reading the content to you by way of video, MOOCs need to provide real world examples and practice to professionals. You may say that it’s difficult, but most of these instructors have friends or students that would jump at the opportunity to be in a video for Coursera. It doesn’t need to be trained actors to get a good point across.

Read: The Making of Microvideos with Friends at DevLearn

P.S. “Writing for the Web” did have lots of examples – they did a good job there. It was just a bit overwhelming.

Just a Bad Presentation in General

I don’t feel like I need to go into this. You’ve seen bad presentations before, I’m sure. They’ve sometimes bled into MOOCs as well.

I Feel Like I’m in College Again

…and that isn’t a good thing. Most of the time I feel like I’m just being lectured at, then I answer arbitrary questions on a message board with other students, then I take a quiz that doesn’t actually ask me to practice what I know.


Much of this, I believe, stems from the university accreditation on a lot, if not most, popular MOOCs. I understand the need or want to be accredited, but universities and academics are often out of touch with the professional world. This leads to MOOCs focusing on the content first, not the learner. This is okay for academic topics, but for professional skill building concepts, focusing on just the content is just plain ineffective.

There are some upcoming accrediting systems to combat this, but they’re not here yet. For now we have to depend on universities to say whether the course passes their accrediting system.

Read: From hours to outcomes

MOOCs can be Better

Now, I’m not knocking MOOCs entirely. They have so much potential, but they’re not quite living up to it yet. They have room for improvement, and I absolutely hope they do improve. Free/inexpensive training on specific topics that you need to know in the workplace? Awesome!

But, they need to be quality to be worth even the time and effort we put into them.

So, now you talk. Tell me, am I wrong? Have I just had bad luck with MOOCs? Or is there a point that I missed?

The featured image of this post adapted from thetextureproject’s image on DeviantArt.

  • valaryo

    I’d have to agree that MOOCs haven’t quite found their way yet. I think universities started them mostly with a view to scalability of courses and profit potential thinking their audience was undergrads. Wrong! Many, and in some course, most of the MOOC participants are adults who have finished undergrad work, which is good because MOOCs (especially the good ones, and I’ve participated in some of those) require a lot of self-directed learning, which is an acquired skill. I still like the idea of MOOCs but there needs to be work on both sides. Learners have to have an expectation of what they want to get out of the MOOC (maybe connect with others interested in the topic or access a curated set of content to save them researching the topic themself, for instance) and the course providers have to do more than put lectures online and pretend that is enough. Too many MOOCs are content-centric instead of learner-centric. This is one reason that completion rates on MOOCs are not good measurements of participation or effectiveness. Obviously with the massive size MOOCs can achieve, individual attention is not possible in the same way as with smaller groups, but the course can be structured in a way that encourages individual artifact creation that helps spur collaboration and discussion that extends beyond the course. I have seen vital Facebook and Google + groups grow out of MOOC participation. I think it will be interesting to continue to track MOOCs. Many of the same complaints people currently have about MOOCs I have heard about elearning over the years.

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  • I tend to disagree with the post and agree with @valaryo:disqus . I registered for more then 100 MOOCs and completed at least 10.
    MOOC plateforms (coursera) and content, courses are different. Even with the same plaform, interactions can be different. Some plateforms are more innovative than Coursera. Check Edx or curatr. Now that those plateforms are attracting as many courses they can, they don’t look for quality of design.
    What is needed now, exactly like for books, blogs, chats is a curation of MOOCs. What each of us found, what was good and why. It all depends on what we already master and as @valaryo says how trained we are for self directed learning, my pet topic.
    I followed some MOOCs not for my benefit but to evaluate what was teached there and if I could recommend it to some tweeps. A course of web design or javascript for software developer like me is not going to be same as for someone in ID, still they will carry the same names and have similar objectives: because it’s part of the marketing.

    • It sounds like we all recognize that MOOCs are great at providing content. In my post I say “The content is usually good. Great, even.” My argument is that it could be taught better. Of course I agree that it’s what we make of it (I take MOOCs regardless because I want the information) – but my argument is that they can be so much better since they’re presented as learning material.

      Part of the problem we tend to recognize as instructional designers is that there’s a lot of bad training out there, and MOOCs just seem to be really on the bad side (my argument in the post). But we take it regardless because it’s free and content we want to learn (self-directed learning). Self directed learning is super important, but why not also argue that MOOCs should train effectively if they want to be taken seriously?

      • I’m a software engineer and an occasional web designer. Whenever I come across a new app, a nice blog I lift the veil, look at the source of the page. because I’ve done it again and again, I can spot which tools are used, the choice of plugins, etc.. On an app, I will screen shot the conversion and the onboarding. The whole thing makes that I’m someone difficult to satisfy while I can see others enjoying without restrain half backed apps. I call it the curse of being a specialist.

        Is there such a thing for IDs as well ?
        Yesterday I took a course made by a icon designer on skillshare. He is not an ID, he just told his story, described his process. Did I learn something? yes, was it well designed? No. IMHO the future is along those lines: knowledge flowing from SME to learners almost directly and I want to be part of it.

        IDs could also take a lead position by sharing their art and cocreating MOOCs.What do you think?

        • >IMHO the future is along those lines: knowledge flowing from SME to learners almost directly and I want to be part of it.

          TBH, that’s how it’s been for a long time :) instructional designers have been around for some time, sure, but when it comes down to it – this is how most knowledge is transferred. I think this is an OK format, but if you really want to illicit behavior change in a learner (say, in a workplace setting, etc.) then we can’t always depend on the learner taking enough interest on the subject on their own.

          >IDs could also take a lead position by sharing their art and cocreating MOOCs.What do you think?

          Yes – I absolutely agree!

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  • Kimberly Moler

    Awesome article!!! I totally agree with all of your thoughts and frustrations! Glad I am not alone in this :)

  • Alison Bulbeck

    I enjoyed reading your review of the MOOC you subscribed to, Rachel!
    Do you have any thoughts about Connectivist learning – a completely different ball-game altogether?
    Some ideas from me:
    The current connundrum is that MOOCs were originally designed to be modelled around Connectivism – networking using technology and creating on-line relationships with people to share knowledge and enable innovative ideas to develop. Unfortunately 99% of MOOCs are still in the ‘legacy’ knowledge-transfer (not knowledge creation) paradigm. Academics in the top-flight universities are using Coursera, edX, and FutureLearn for their traditional teaching, which wasn’t the idea! Connective learning doesn’t have a concept of “content” being served up to students, it is much more fluid, ad-hoc and random. As connectivism is built on chaos theory, that’s why :-)
    It has been difficult for this new approach to catch on yet. People find it somewhat bewildering not to follow a set curriculum. The nearest I have come to experiencing a cMOOC is History and Future of Higher Education. It had good engagement throughout, but some of the “experiments” to spin-off into sub-groups fell a bit flat, due to different time-zones. So all the US-based people piled into a Google Hangout, and the rest of world only found out the next day. OOOOps, that didn’t go down too well. There are down-sides of the internet, being able to cater to all time-zones synchronously – it needs the facilitator to be aware of that potential barrier to success, and allow for it in the ‘design’ of the activities. Despite the concept of “empowered learning”, it still needs a “leader”, only more as a mentor, support and guide, than someone throwing “facts” at students to memorise.
    In case you are wondering about my interest, I’m writing my PhD on this topic of connective learning!

  • I’m interested to know what would be your opinion on #LearnxAPI that just started.First because I like their format, second because the topic is in your field. (Disclosure: No I like the concept but I’m not part of it in anyway)

    • I’ll have to check it out! I have only taken a course through curatr3 once and it was a long time ago. I don’t know that I was crazy about it, but maybe they’ve made some changes.