Are MOOCs Disruptive? They Are Where I Live

A recent post in the Mind/Shift blog on the dismal completion rates of MOOCs ends with the question of whether or not they are disruptive. For education policy people and trend-watchers this seems to be an important question. But as the article states, and as a little consideration suggests, completion rates may not be the most important thing to think about. I think their very existence is indicative of their disruptive status. From the perspective of an EFL teacher trainer in Japan–and I’m guessing I can speak for many people throughout the world hungry for better-quality education in English–MOOCs are a very significant development.

People in North America (where I hail from) may not be conscious of a few things that we expat English teachers have been noticing for years. The world is getting smaller is one way to describe this major sea change over the last two decades. I can divide my 26 years in Japan into roughly two periods: the age before and after the Internet became available. Yes, before the Internet arrived, I had access to three English newspapers, a dozen or so magazines, lots of  movies, and even taped US television–all of which were precious resources we used to build lesson activities with authentic English. But now, everything seems to be available, only a few clicks away. The problem these days though, is that content is not organized and is often not accessible as it is for people from other cultures or with less-than-native English proficiency. In countries like Japan and China, there are large domestic populations and armies of translators and local businesses all too willing to repackage and charge locals for more comprehensive packages of content. This has often created an artificial barrier to access on of content on the web by individuals.

At the same time, however, it has become easier and more common to travel and study abroad and meet and interact with people from other cultures, both in foreign countries and in Japan. Inbound tourism, mostly a collection of international businessmen and their families twenty years ago, has become more frequent and more diverse. What I want to say is, everyone is aware that the world is getting smaller and will continue to do so in the future. They’re just not sure what to do about it exactly.

What does this have to do with MOOCs? Well, the availability and institutional trust value of schools offering MOOCs means a great deal to a great many people in various corners of the world. Anyone can go on the web and practice writing, but a comprehensive course offered, for example, by Duke University is a completely different thing. MOOCs give access to higher education opportunities that can be trusted to people who normally couldn’t or wouldn’t access such opportunities. And what about completion rates? I just don’t see that as an issue. Many people are trying this system out, taking a few cars for a test drive as it were. They are testing both the courses and themselves and getting a better idea of how the combination of these can work. Schools are becoming more sensitive to the needs of such learners, too. That writing course I mentioned is a relatively recent addition to the catalog and obviously aimed at entry-level students.

The signs I see mostly point to positive improvements. The screenshot above is from Coursera‘s website. More courses in more languages, and the option to get real credit for your work. I think we are moving into a new phase here. I regularly recommend courses to friends, colleagues, and students here in Japan, regardless of their nationality. Not taking advantage of these courses is criminally stupid in my opinion, even if that means just watching the videos and lurking around a little. There is much to learn in many different ways. If you haven’t tried it yet, please go to the website and take a look at the offerings. I guarantee you’ll find something that interests you.

Recently, some courses have begun to offer Signature Track registration. It’s a paid service that allows you to experience courses in a way that allows you to earn a verifiable certificate. It seems MOOCs are moving toward a more standard e-learning model. I’m not sure if this is good or bad, but completely free MOOCs may be on their way out. Get ’em while you can.

May 1, 2013 Update: Here is a nice blog article with current stats and comments on MOOC users.


Photo credits: Top, screengrab from NASA video ( ); Bottom two from Coursera’s website ( )


I would very much like to do my doctorate. I have several ideas and have spent  time scrounging around on the web for some place where my budget of time and cash and my schedule can all be accommodated in a blissful combination, and the fetters of my everyday responsibilities will fall away and I will be able to concentrate on learning and writing with a chorus of heavenly voices as BGM. Yup, it’s a fantasy. I know it. It just ain’t gonna happen. I’m too busy and too poor and too invested in my family to commit myself to an Ed.D. program at this time. So I just study and research by myself. I’m on my own, with my books and my copied articles, and my PDFs on my ipad, and my hop-scotching from topic to topic as I follow my inclinations without discussions or deadlines.

But now there is a new game in town. MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, are crawling out of the academic woodwork and getting all sorts of attention. Game-changers, they’re being called by some enthusiastic folk (especially the people involved in the three most prominent at the moment: Coursera, Udacity, and Edx). Of course, there is dissent as well, this being the internet and all (this article sums up the pros and cons pretty well). They don’t really level the playing field and allow wider access–real access–to higher education. Well, they kind of do, but point taken. They are not real courses with interaction with classmates and the professor! Yup, with thousands of people enrolled,you can’t expect to actually get to talk to anyone. They are just advertising for big name unis! Probably true, at least partially. I don’t care that much. The fact is that they are a niche right now for people like me who want to learn, who are learning on their own anyway, to add a little structure and direction to their studies. And that’s a good thing. The world is like that anyway now. You can learn almost anything you want on your own; but you only get a degree if you pay and work at it long and hard enough. It is the way it is.

So, I’ve enrolled myself into two courses at Coursera. I want to give it a spin. I’m hoping that I learn something, something that I may have overlooked if if I tried to learn the subject on my own. Anything good that emerges from the experience will be welcome, and unexpected, and precious. I know, like everyone knows, that MOOCs are not the answer to the problems of higher education. But they are a nice gesture, from a lot of people who don’t really need to make such gestures. For the time being, I’m still thinking of it as a slightly less lonely version of learning alone.