George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The mistake about MOOCs (massive open online courses) is that they discount the central component of effective teaching -- the relationship forged between student and teacher.

Sure, students around the world gain access to previously inaccessible and unimaginable content from some of the world's renowned universities and professors from MIT, Harvard and Stanford. These students can grow inspired by the possibility of absorbing information through online lectures and platforms, as 12-year-old Khadija Niazi of Pakistan explained recently at the World Economic Forum. The New York Times reported, "Ms. Niazi has been taking courses, free so far, from Udacity and Coursera, two of the earliest providers of this new form of instruction. Her latest enthusiasm is for astrobiology, because she is fascinated by UFOs and wants to become a physicist."

This is nothing short of amazing and shows the flattening of the education world. Thomas Friedman celebrates the power of the MOOC: "Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty -- by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world's biggest problems."

However, MOOCs make a key assumption that the students enrolling in these courses have a certain degree of motivation and are reasonably adept self-starters as learners.

The Importance of Belonging

For students who know what they want and when they want it in terms of online content, MOOCs are a fabulous new option to build and construct personalized learning ecosystems.

Unfortunately, for many learners, MOOCs lack the possibility of mentorship and close guidance that comes through the building of a meaningful relationship between student and teacher.

One student who was exposed to Khan Academy lectures in a math class commented that she much preferred listening to her math teacher explain the same concepts because she likes this teacher and feels comfortable asking questions and going for extra help outside of class. This student-teacher bond is more challenging to develop and sustain through online learning, which by its design is constructed through distance and the tubes of the Internet.

The fact will always remain that great teachers inspire through their passion for their subject and their ability to communicate and connect with students in face-to-face interactions and relationships.

Noted author and blogger Annie Murphy Paul writes: "The level of comfort we feel in another person's presence can powerfully influence how intelligent we feel, and in some sense, how intelligent we actually are, at least in that moment. Now multiply that one-on-one interaction by tens or hundreds, and you start to get a sense of how important a sense of belonging to a learning community can be."

MOOCs are not yet able to cultivate the sense of belonging in "another person's presence." Not to mention that the completion rate of MOOCs is quite low. According to The New York Times, "Less than 10 percent of MOOC students finish the courses they sign up for on their own." While the exposure to great content is alluring, the lasting impact may be fleeting unless MOOCs can figure out a way to establish the relationship piece between students and teachers.

Do you have any experience with MOOCs? How might MOOCs begin to connect content with relationships?

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Shweta Maheshwari's picture

I agree with what Nikhil has said regarding the setbacks of MOOCs. MOOCs definitely fail to monitor students, makes them lazy and ruins the discipline in their lives.. Moreover, they lack sincerity as there is no one monitoring them, there are no fixed lecture hours and not so stringent deadlines. Students tend to lack motivation to participate as their is no personal interaction and they do not know people personally, have never had face to face interactions with them. Social networking web sites, have come a long way to facilitate social interactions, still lack that essence of in person meetings and discussions. People know each other through social-networking websites still not knowing each other.

Srinivasaragavan Annamalai Rajamohan's picture

I would like to differ from your point of view. MOOCs as the name goes by is a Massive. As you have mentioned the ratio as 1:150,000 times, it's difficult for a teacher to conduct a skype session or chat with those many students. Having one or two Teaching Assistants also won't help the cause. It

From the statistics provided by Rivard, Ry. "Measuring the MOOC dropout rate." Inside Higher Ed 8 (2013), I can see that atleast half the students have dropped the course after watching the lecture videos. So, clearly the teacher is not able to establish a sense of belonging with the students as pointed out by the author of this article. I feel it would be a good idea to post the recordings of a live classroom like MIT Opencourseware. The main difference is that the body language of the teacher is different when he's addressing the students than just giving his lecture to a video recording. It's very difficult to influence the passion among students using videos.

Frankie Ramirez's picture

I agree that MOOCs do miss the teacher to student relationship. Often Skype or online meetings is not enough, but I wouldn't completely call MOOCs a fail. MOOCs were created to give an education to those seeking material, similar to classes, but free. This environment that is usually in a class room is emulated by technology; Why can't teachers be emulated online to give a student a feeling of having a teacher. Students seek a teachers help because they will understand how to help in a way that the student is use to. If we can improve online tutoring to make the relationship seem similar to teachers than MOOCs create a 1:1 relationships between students and teachers. No matter how big the class gets, they will have that personal assistance.

Karthik Jayaraman's picture

I concur with author's view that one of the areas where MOOCs needs to improve is the student-teacher interaction. Though the author points out some instances and quotes which emphasize the presence of the teacher and its impact on learning, it is not feasible in the current MOOCs scenario.

I disgree with Nikhil's comment that bringing all students in the class for a face-to-face discussion is a next to impossible thing, owing to the size of the community. But i do agree with the view that current MOOCs should focus on moving from lack of student-teacher interaction to a lot of student-teacher interaction. As mentioned in "Information processing approaching to collaborative learning", Webb, activities of teachers during collaborative work is very important factor that attribute to student learning. But we can use the advent of technology to setup virtual tutors and student tutor support. Though this cannot be the replacement of traditional instructor, it will have an student learning.

Also, in my perspective this is an area where MOOCs fall short, other benefits outweigh this limitation and it is important for MOOC to overcome this limitation

Nikhil SB's picture

I appreciate the author for bringing out the importance of relationship between students and teacher in classroom. I agree with Matt that a well constructed MooC can keep students engaged. Lack of interaction with the peers and faculty cause a decrease in social integration.

For the challenge Matt mentions I guess we can think of bringing all the members of Online community together for Face 2 face or a virtual interaction session through skype or google might help. This I think can help students in many ways ,they can know about their instructor and their classmates. This can also build a sense of trust between the participants and make online learning easier.

Apart from the already mentioned reasons, I also think that MooC also fails to monitor a student and cannot be a great help to the student unless if he/she is an independent and self-disciplined learner.

Pandi Maharajan's picture

Thanks Matt for the nice article on student-teacher relationship on MOOCs. With many number of users using MOOCs it is very difficult to build student-teacher relationship. As suggested by Nikhil, using video chat technologies like Skype and Google hangout it not a good option to collaborate with teachers(because of the crowd). One suggestion is that MOOC can integrate chat and allow collaborate people based on course they take. The users can be a teacher or a student and by this way anyone can ask doubts in chat and get it clarified then an there. By this MOOC can provide an interface that improve collaboration.

Rohit Chakravarthi's picture

Thanks for the great article Matt.
I think student - teacher relationship is one important aspect in making MOOCs achieve their true potential, and there are few steps teacher can take to get more social presence between them and students in a MOOC community.

I think the first step would be for the teacher to assemble a decent team that has willing and passionate faculty who want MOOCs to shine. They can at times, do it with another colleague and Teaching Assistants etc. Lot of MOOCs teachers now teach a MOOC while assuming his or her full teaching responsibilities at the university, which put tremendous pressure on the individual. Also apparent is the volume of upfront work that is required--an extensive amount of time is devoted to preparing the content, materials, instructions for students, and the course home page.

The next step would be for the teacher to envision her goals of the course clearly and plan the development process. Taking the technology into account, the teacher should also have a good strategy to attend to the needs of individual students. There might be a lot of discussion threads, and a lot of questions teachers have to answer on a day -to-day basis, and there should be a clear plan on how the teacher wants to go about it. If needed, the teacher shouldn't hesitate to use social media (twitter, facebook, email) etc to communicate to students.

Another step would be for the teacher to identify the demography of the class, and know what background different students come from, and provide adaptable content to them. This can vastly improve student - teacher relationship. If students have never taken online courses before, or never done collaboration online, they would need extra care and effort.

I think these steps might lower the drop rate, and also in general engender the flexibility of MOOCs, but there is always the large audience to worry about, which leads to a lot of issues. But these might take in the right direction.

Vijay Manavalan's picture

I agree with Matt on the point that MOOCs are good for students who are highly motivated. It is easy for an user to get de-motivated in a course. Motivation is one of the important factor which drives an individual to learn which can be given to a student by his teacher/instructor in a face to face learning environment. At the same time since MOOC is massive it is virtually impossible to coordinate a session where everyone can have a face to face interaction. That is exactly the problem which MOOCs are facing.

Many solutions are proposed in this thread one of which by Frankie Ramirez states that we can emulate a 1:1 relationship between a teacher and a student using online tutors. I don't agree with this solution, since having an online tutor won't give the necessary personal motivation. The tutors are mere robots which are predefined to answer a set of questions. Hence I don't really believe having a tutor for each student will make it any better. Also, many questions arise like what if the online tutor doesn't satisfy the student's needs? How will you gauge the satisfaction of the user? etc.

Another solution proposed by Nikhil is that to have Skype/Google video chats to enable face to face communication. Again, I do not agree with the solution since organizing hundreds and thousands of hangouts itself is impossible. Even though we achieve that, what if people don't show up and many hangouts have only one member left? He will not have anyone else to interact with.

Conclusively, MOOCs are facing the problem of face to face interaction with the instructors or the fellow students. This has been a wide problem and this needs in depth research to figure out efficient solutions.

Martin Richards's picture
Martin Richards
I train educators to use a coaching approach in their teaching practice

Re-reading in "Visible Learning" Prof. John Hattie's list ( ) of the typical influences on achievement in schools, I note that amongst the top twenty with positive effect-size of 0.73 and 0.72 are Teacher-Student relationships and Feedback.

Do MOOCs have any chance of generating a real and effective relationship between the teacher and the student? And what kind of feedback is there from the student to the teacher that affects how the teaching is carried out?

As a computer programmer (yes I am) I can see that computers can be programmed to interact like humans, and to learn from their choices and the feedback on the effects of the choices. Is that where we are headed? Or will we always need real live teachers who care about teaching?

Lisa Carey's picture
Lisa Carey
Special Education Consultant

I agree, research shows that MOOC completion rates are low. I also agree that the student-teacher relationship would be very difficult to simulate in this type of learning environment. This article asks if MOOCs are as effective as in-person courses and determines that they come up short. Perhaps MOOCs are so different in format and purpose that comparing them to the effectiveness of in-person courses is not a helpful question. Maybe we should be asking when are MOOCs the appropriate learning environment? What does successful use with a MOOC look like? It is course completion or is it that a learner accomplished their personal goals?

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