05/24/2013 02:04 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2013

The 12 Myths of MOOCs

In a recent survey of several hundred educators, only 13 percent of schools today offer MOOCs, but 43 percent plan to offer them by 2016. So if we agree the trend is here to stay, let's take a look at the growing mythology of Massive Open Online Courses.

1. MOOCs provide a quality learning experience.

While no one questions the quality of instruction offered by some of the finest minds in higher education, it is reasonable to question the extent of student learning from MOOCs. The great majority of participants do not complete the course they enroll in. Of the very small percentage who do, questions remain about the validity of the assessment instrument, the security of the assessment process, and, in some cases, the identity of the participant. To date, there is very little evidence of actual learning done by students who enroll in a MOOC.

2. Degree completion is the highest and best use of MOOCs.

There are several things that MOOCs do well. Unfortunately, as noted in Myth #1, the provision of a credit-worthy learning experience is still at issue. Public relations, continuing education, faculty reputation building and program marketing all appear to be better fits, at this point, for the MOOC.

3. MOOCs feature state-of-the-art instructional design.

Surprisingly, instructional design is not an element of the MOOC planning process. More often than not, instruction consists of the often distained, yet familiar, lecture that we associate with traditional instruction. This may explain why MOOC completion rates are less than 10 percent.

4. MOOCs are a recent phenomenon.

In fact, the first known MOOC was offered in 2008 as part of the Open Educational Resource movement.

5. MOOCs were created by premier universities in the U.S.

The first MOOC was a course on "connectivism and cognitive knowledge" presented to 25 tuition-paying students and 2,300 "free" participants at the University of Manitoba, Canada.

6. Tier One universities have embraced MOOCs out of a desire to provide free access to knowledge.

While this is undoubtedly one reason for offering a MOOC, observers suggest that the opportunity to enhance an organization's reputation by being seen in the company of such pioneers as Stanford, MIT, and Harvard has more to do with the rush to be a part of the movement. Since the majority of MOOC participants are from outside the U.S., MOOC offerings are an effective way to build brand awareness abroad, particularly as few institutions, other than the giants mentioned, are known around the world.

7. MOOCS are the only source of free, high-quality online content.

The Open Educational Resource and Open Course Ware movements offer thousands of high-quality online courses for free. Ironically, these offerings are thought to be more appropriate than MOOCS for degree completion students. The offering institutions are often the same - MIT, Harvard, Yale, etc.

8. While those completing a MOOC are relatively few (usually under 10 percent of enrollees), those who do are assured of receiving academic credit, which they may apply toward degree requirements.

In fact, only five MOOCs have been found credit worthy by the American Council on Education. And, even still, there is a lack of agreement as to whether to recognize this recommendation. No evaluation of learning outcomes has been presented in support of these recommendations and most institutions have not accepted the results.

9. Employees are anxious to employ those who complete technical MOOCs.

Although there have been anecdotal accounts of such hirings, there is no verifiable data to support these claims.

10. MOOCs do not live up to the hype.

It depends which "hype" we refer to. As PR and marketing tools, MOOCs have proven to be extremely effective. Similarly, their highest and best use is thought to be in providing cutting-edge content to time constrained professionals seeking to remain current in their fields. Credit and even completion are not necessarily objectives for this group.

11. MOOCs and their free enrollment business model are not sustainable.

As the major MOOC providers charge institutions to create an offering (up to $250K per course for edX) they are building a healthy income stream. The success MOOCs have created in building both faculty and institutional awareness assure an on-going stream of offerings, as does their success in profiling new offerings that involve tuition to continue the student's coursework beyond an initial "free sample."

12. The author of this piece is anti-MOOC

To the contrary, I am very bullish on MOOCs. As noted, there is much that they already do well. With greater attention to instructional design, student retention and secure learning outcomes assessment they can and will become important vehicles for increasing global access to knowledge.