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Putting the ‘M’ Back in MOOCs

Almost six years ago on Oct 10, 2011, I started an online course, along with over 100,000 other students from around the world. The course was Artificial Intelligence, taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. Eventually, 160,00 students signed up for the class. It was one of three courses that started on that day, all of them by Stanford professors, all completely free.

This course didn’t have any community features, but soon a student-run forum popped up, and it became the semi-official forum for communication among students. Throughout the course, the forum buzzed with activity. New posts were being added every few minutes. If I had any question at all, it had already been asked and answered by someone else. This helped me stay engaged enough to complete the course and earn a certificate.

In fact, I felt so energized by the experience that I was inspired to create BestCerts, a place to keep track of the free university courses which people later started calling MOOCs. Nowadays, a lot of that initial excitement has fizzled.  Very few MOOCs (if any) achieve this level of activity.

MOOCs No Longer Massive

The first MOOCs were essentially college courses adapted for online — they were approximately 10 weeks long and included weekly or bi-weekly assignment deadlines and a final exam. Like a college course, they followed a semester pattern and were offered once or twice a year, depending on the professor’s schedule.

Scaling MOOCs required removing professors from the active role of running their courses. In the process, MOOCs have gradually been transformed from virtual classrooms to a Netflix-like experience. Most courses are now offered in a self-paced format or, in the case of Coursera courses, switched to an automated schedule, with new sessions starting on a bi-weekly or monthly basis. If a student can’t finish a session, all their work is simply transferred to a new session.

Many learners have welcomed these changes as the content is available almost all the time.

But this means that instead of tens of thousands of people learning together as part of a shared experience, everybody is learning at their own pace in significantly smaller cohorts. The always on-demand MOOC trend has led to a drastic reduction in forum activity within MOOC cohorts. At one point Coursera boasted about an average forum response time of 22 minutes; that’s no longer the case.

The push for monetization hasn’t helped build community. Over time the free components of MOOCs have gradually been reduced, making these courses less appealing to many in their initial audience.

The community aspect of MOOCs started out as a happy accident. The MOOC providers made some modest attempts to foster community, like setting up course forums and including Meetup links in their courses. But building communities requires more than just building technology.

The MOOC Semester

Screenshot of forums from Couresra’s old platform which got shutdown last year. src: Courtney Boyd Myers 

Those of us who took MOOCs in the early days know that something has been lost. Pat Bowden, a learner who plans to complete 100 MOOCs (she has completed 86 courses so far), has this to say, ““To me, there seems to be a growing trend for students to simply post their own thoughts on the topic without engaging with others’ comments.” That makes sense given that MOOCs have become a solo experience. Forum comments aren’t a multi-way conversation but rather are essentially breadcrumbs for the next crop of learners.

If the providers want to make MOOCs massive again, they will need to go back to the characteristics that made them popular in the first place: semi-synchronous, instructor-led, and sufficiently hyped.

Imagine that once or twice a year MOOC providers publish a limited catalog of courses that will be instructor-led (i.e instructors will play an active role in running of the course).  These courses have a fixed schedule, have a start date and end date with some soft-deadlines through the course. The goal here would be to get everybody moving at a similar pace.

In the early days, course videos were created as the course progressed, sometimes drawing on student feedback. As a course participant, this really made me feel part of something larger and helped me maintain my enthusiasm throughout the course.

Al Fileris, a professor at Penn and instructor of Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo) offers a synchronous version of the class every fall. Dr. Fileris goes even further and re-shoots his videos.

Dr. Fileris gave a fiery keynote speech at Learning With MOOCs conference in 2015 where he laid out his approach on how to make the MOOC feel like residential education and not feel like in-personal. One way ModPo achieves this is by being extremely responsive. Every comment in the MOOC gets a response within a few hours, but usually within a few minutes.


The results are there to see: ModPo is one of BestCerts’s highest rated MOOCs of all time. Since it first launched in 2012, many students have finished ModPo multiple times.

Even Dr. Fileris admits that the approach he proposes might require too much time and attention from MOOC instructors (though his approach scales within a MOOC). But he provides some practical advice – weekly live interactive webcasts, office hours, community TA’s which can be leveraged to engage the community.

Having talked with multiple instructors over the last few years spread across multiple MOOC providers, I believe many would be willing to jump on this opportunity. Providers can make the MOOC semester an opt-in event.

Finally, sufficient hype. I think that the way to get people excited about MOOCs again is to offer free certificates. The courses that are part of the MOOC Semester will offer a free certificate to anyone who completes all the course requirements by a certain date.  Those who don’t meet the deadline could pay an upgrade fee and earn the certificate.

The MOOC providers abandoned free certificates because they were looking for a sustainable business model. Reintroducing them could reignite some of the enthusiasm MOOCs initially generated. The potential loss of revenue from free certificates would be offset by the marketing benefits of reaching more users.

Early this year I published an article on Medium which listed 250 Ivy League MOOCs. That article went viral and received 2.5 million views, showing that there is still a tremendous appetite for online courses taught by universities.

A MOOC Semester with free certificates can tap into this appetite.  If multiple MOOC providers get together and coordinate their PR efforts, it will result in similar viral articles in different parts of the world.

MOOC providers have seen this hype before and benefited from it. In Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller’s own words, “We reached 20 million learners with minimal marketing costs, largely because of the PR cycle around us.” A MOOC semester can recreate this PR cycle, bring in new learners, as well as engage old learners who might have fallen of the MOOC bandwagon.

In her TED talk in 2012, Kohler explained why the Coursera courses were different than previous online courses – it was a real classroom with real homework assignments, real grades, and real deadlines. These days, most  MOOCs don’t feel like a real classroom. The MOOC Semester can fix that.

A version of this post first appeared on EdSurge. Sign up for EdSurge’s Weekly Higher Ed Newsletter for weekly news updates, interviews, and debates on edtech and the future of education.