08/16/2014 05:48 pm ET | Updated Oct 16, 2014

Creating a Learning Environment With MOOCs

Championed by some as the democratization of higher education and deplored by others as nothing more than high-tech bad teaching, MOOCs are as controversial as they are plentiful. As I left home for the Future of Learning Institute at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, a friend asked me to look into MOOCs -- to find out why, as she said, "Companies love them." She went on to explain that the company she worked for planned to migrate most of their training programs to an internal MOOC-inspired platform. Though not an educator, she has spent much of her working life observing how people behave online and training people face-to-face. She went on to say, "This just doesn't seem to reflect how people learn."

In fact, MOOCs have very low completion rates. But the completion rates only tell part of the story. I asked several high school students who enrolled in MOOCs whether or not they earned certificates. Each and every one said they had not, and yet they did not classify themselves as having dropped out of the MOOC. They simply explained that it didn't matter. They signed up for pre-exam preparation, curriculum enrichment, or out of a personal interest. Their goals did not involve earning a certificate. As Justin Reigh and Andrew Ho wrote in their 2014 Atlantic article, "The Tricky Task of Figuring Out What Makes a MOOC Successful,"

"Our data show that many who register for HarvardX courses are engaging substantially in courses without earning a certificate. In these courses, 'dropping out' is not a breach of expectations but the natural result of an open, free, and asynchronous registration process, where students get just as much as they wish out of a course and registering for a course does not imply a commitment to completing it."

I've now enrolled in four MOOCS over the past five months, each for a different reason. I intended to complete three start-to-finish and completed one. While I enjoyed the projects and the content in the first, I had to put it aside when a more pressing project came up at work. I missed a few deadlines and withdrew. The second connected directly to my work. The course was The Art of Tinkering and it was offered by The Exploratorium through Coursera. It was challenging, interesting and included numerous hands-on projects and very few lectures. I found a local makerspace at which to seek help when I was lost - usually not knowing what materials I needed or where to source them - and enlisted the support of two friends in my endeavors. In the third course, I slowly viewed videos with one of my children who has an interest in the topic -- more as a bonding experience, less as a learning endeavor. The last one is still on my to-do list, as I have only reviewed the course content and syllabus. It is more theoretical and will be something I can do when time allows. Like my students, I don't need a certificate.

And this diversity of purpose seems to be fine. The question, in the end, is not whether or not MOOCs are effective teaching tools, but whether or not they can contribute to learning. While this may seem like a minor distinction, it places the responsibility on the learner and the learning context, not on the MOOC. This distinction calls upon us as educators to examine not what makes a MOOC successful, but what makes a person a successful learner.

The Future of Learning Institute called upon us to take a human view of learning -- one driven by research on cognition, emotion, biology and culture. During her final day plenary, Veronica Boix Mansilla, Principal Investigator for Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, summarized that this research indicates that learning is most robust when learners are taught to become "capable and responsible agents," "driven by interests," and adept at "managing complex digital worlds." Reflecting on my own experience in Tinkering Fundamentals, the MOOC itself was one piece of multi-dimensional learning experience, one that I actively managed and for which I had a purpose.

My friend was correct. Taken on their own, MOOCs do not reflect how people learn best. When viewed as resources within this meaningful learning eco-system rather than as traditional college courses, however, MOOCs hold great promise. As Reigh and Ho conclude,

"The story of MOOCs is not going to be told with conventional statistics borrowed from brick-and-mortar classroom models. Rather, our research describes an emerging learning ecosystem, one where enrollment can be casual and nonbinding, learning happens asynchronously, and registrants come from all countries in the world, with diverse intentions and patterns of learning."