Chapter 1: Instructor-Guided Learning at Scale

What were your biggest takeaways from the first of the Three Genres of Learning at Scale? Do you have any experience with MOOCs and how do they align or differ from the research presented?

Early on, it became clear that MOOCs had tremendous potential to change how people access learning materials at scale. Obviously, the 2011 MOOC on AI that Justin mentions opened the doors to AI for many learners. Justin argues that, generally, MOOCs are for people who already have degrees. I’d be interested to see if this profile has changed, especially due to covid (i.e. it looks like the main MOOC providers, Coursera/edX have had huge enrollment increases and this is at least partially a result of profs using it as resources driven by “forced onlining”).

But, setting aside who is currently taking MOOCs, I’m interested in what they do or what they enable.

Their impact is likely in the following areas:

  1. Help universities develop online materials. I heard this in a conversation with a vice provost from UMichigan. Their move online with MOOCs has resulted in the amplification of organizational capabilities related to online learning. In this sense, MOOCs can be seen as raising the digital competence of universities that begin to experiment with new formats of teaching online. However, not all systems have invested significant $$. In 2012, as the hype was in full roar, I was in a discussion with Penn State (they have a strong history of online learning with their World Campus and have boasted that they have more instructional designers than any university in USA) and they had allocated up to $500k for some of their early MOOCs. Not everyone can invest those kinds of resources. What it does do, however, it create a pipeline/process for developing curriculum that can, theoretically at least, be scaled. MOOCs enable universities to digitize. However, with each year delay and the sudden arrival of a pandemic, universities who have been laggards can’t get up to speed on their own and increasingly partner with OPMs.

  2. MOOCs are a supply side answer to decades of demand side increase in learning needs. I think universities are largely responsible for their current predicament. We have had decades of digitization. We’ve seen entire industries experience change. And yet, much of what happens in higher education is limited to the traditional system - courses/programs (there has been quite a bit of change in technology adoption in classrooms so it’s unfair to say higher education hasn’t changed. But there has not been much visionary thought in providing new options and approaches to learners. We are in the middle of a pandemic, and a big innovation in Australia, for example, is to have “short courses” available so student don’t have to take an entire 16 week course). As a result plodding and failed leadership in universities, corporate partners have been active in MOOCs. Justin lists several examples in this chapter, including the early Georgia Tech/Udacity pilot, which has since seen GT go solo. Reskilling seems to be one of the largest revenue generators currently and it is being lead by non-university partners. Universities missed the digitization of learning and knowledge processes and as a consequence, opened wide the doors to for-profit competitors.


I saw myself in the description of the well-educated dabbler, self-directed enough to take the elements of a course that furthered my learning and leave the remainder. You are correct… a certificate doesn’t motivate me much. Which brings me to my questions:

Do you consider on-line universities like University of Phoenix to be MOOC providers? What role does on-line for-profit education play in this landscape? Correct me if I am wrong, but there was a time when schools were signing up students, knowing that they were going to struggle to pay back the loans they were accruing. Access to college, especially for adult learners, was part of a marketing strategy.

The University of Southern New Hampshire has worked to create on-line undergraduate programs that are affordable. What success are they having? Their advertising says that they are growing because they are offering support.

In the chapter, Justin makes the argument that class-stratification has had a deep impact. But it seems to me that this was bound to happen for another reason. College is credentialing for many, many, many people. Those credentials are not equal, nor is the status among students. For a case study, I would offer Harvard College, the graduate schools and Harvard Extension.

Finally, I would be interested in talking about state standards and Khan Academy. Is Sal Khan, by default, the educational voice for mathematics? Will he be the uber teacher/rock-star lecturer who is the best in the field?


There is a lot of good presentation here of the contrast between the promises and the reality of MOOCs. The thing that I think will stick with me though is Reich’s Law “People who do stuff do more stuff and people who do stuff do better than people who don’t do stuff.”

What a true but painful summary of most efficacy research in education. Is our biggest question then around access and motivation: how to get more people to do stuff?


I think the “What’s really new here?” question is so important to ask in edtech and I’m glad it is asked in this chapter. Edtech - being typically developed and marketed by for-profit organizations - has to pitch itself as “new” (either “novel” or “significantly improved”) in order to sell. But is most of what’s on offer new? Is a video recorded lecture and online problem set different from an in-person lecture and offline problem set? And of course, new is not always better - we want to maintain what is good about education right now and only change what is bad or sub-optimal.

MOOCS, from what I can see, are novel in that they provide broader access to educational content. However, they are not a significantly improved form of formal higher education (e.g. universities, vocational colleges) and they do themselves a disservice by trying to pitch themselves as such.

One new think I learned was that Khan was such an influencer on the earlier MOOCs, which I didn’t realize and find interesting. EAG asks if Sal Khan is then one of those user-rock-star-teacher, which I think the answer is no. There’s an almost throwaway line on page 22 which notes that Khan later separates its videos from it’s exercises. It also chunked it’s videos and kept them short, and heavily emphasized (at least early on) self-guided and self-directed student learning. I think the key to Khan Academy being a great resource is that the video are chunked, separated, and linked in a scaffolded structure so that students can control their pace and structure of learning, which is essentially lost in most MOOCs. Khan Academy in that way really changes the underlying design of how a subject is taught (compared to a traditional class). I found it interesting to hear that MOOCs were inspired by Khan Academy, but then essentially build out a model for their courses that is fundamental different from the underlying structure of the Khan Academy.

That last comment is telling.

Sal Khan is so far from being even remotely adequate in the lecture field. The lectures that don’t have mistakes – like saying 2 x 1 is 2 because 2 + itself times 1 is 2 (last I checked, 2 + 2 was 4) – are still completely procedural.

He will introduce a brand new topic with an arbitrary example (I’m thinking the average lesson) of numbers… absolutely no discussion of what average means except to mention that the “average” student would like class to end early, which isn’t what average means (he meant “typical.”) His second example is five levels harder with an unexpected answer. (Student got these four grades; what’s he need to get a B average of 80? and… he’d need more than 100%.) That’s fine if you already know the topic and are bored. Then there was the video about the area of rectangles that had some images and conceptual development – but the practice included area of triangles which hadn’t been mentioned.

Back in the early 2000s I’d found good little videos by the likes of Duane Habecker… but Sixty Minutes wasn’t talking to him…

Math videos have a long way to go…

The first “notice and wonder” is: who exactly are these “instructors” guiding the learning at scale? I’m an instructor – of the legion who are too busy to even properly edit and organize a response to the chapter, so pardon the rambling.

I hearken back to 1998 when pursuing a M.Ed. in Instructional Technology at the U. of South Carolina. I chose SC because I had access to this Internet thing with my green-text monitor and I had discerned journal articles from there about technology and special education. I’d left the classroom after 15 years to explore whether educational technology could do more than just stick a text on screen.

My GA position was managing the educational software library (another reason for the choice-- I did not want to be a TA.). Almost all of the software was designed by … software developers who liked games. It was practice with rewards, practice with rewards. Tom Snyder Productions were one exception for math and science type things, and I remember some excellent literacy DVDs (I was focusing on math) which also had some diversity in the content.

I read the same kind of ‘thinking’ in MOOC development. Ivy League Wise Ones Doing Their Projects and Shouldn’t We All Be Grateful! Sal Khan’s so highly self-touted pedagogy-devoid chalk talks are prime examples, but alas, there are many. (See for Michael Pershan’s critique.)

Page 29 demonstrated more elitist attitude and expectations of the MOOC developers. Hey, most people at non-selective higher ed institutions don’t reach their goals anyway, so our MOOCs are doing just fine! Implication: the “non-selective” students aren’t good enough…

I’m glad that when it was noted that socio-economic status and people with “self regulated learning strategies” were tied to success with MOOCS, it was also noted that people learn those strategies through direct instruction in the kinds of academic settings many students don’t hve access to. There’s always a bit of value judgement in “self-regulation” as if it’s a character flaw not to have it, but success in a MOOC takes a very specific set of “self regulation.” The strategies have to match the language and learning in elite academic culture. Let me tell you, many students who don’t succeed in our assorted academic institutions have all kinds of self-regulation strategies … survival strategies.

I’m also reading Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning , and Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain and… there’s so much that could be applied from these books to MOOCS but it’s hard to imagine the likes of Thrun , Norvig, Khan et al doing that…

Have I ever taken a MOOC ? several.
I remember taking a MOOC about instructional technology. I remember the Elite Ivy League Dude telling me that learning looked more complicated than it was; that it was like an ant walking through sand on a beach. The path looked like it would be hard to figure out but, in fact, all the ants followed that same path.

That is not at all consistent with my experience.

That MOOC had an interesting feature: there were TAs whose job was to skim through the weekly assignments and grab a few to highlight. One of mine was :wink: I don’t know if this led to statistically more people completing the course. I did infer from comments that lots of people were doing this to try to make a connection and get a job.

“Instructor driven” … but a very, very small slice of “instructors,” self-declared “rock stars” indeed.

So many attempts to use technology to reach the students on the margins have been unqualified disasters, whether it’s “credit recovery” or developmental mathematics. What if somebody recognized that “lecture, procedural practice and quizzes” … aren’t particularly effective ways of teaching math? (I remember the Carnegie math program that was supposed to ‘be more conceptual’ and … well, no. And don’t have your word problems have a woman riding in the Tour de France at 12 mph. Do a little homework!) Recently there have been some successes (and actual successes, not statistical successes where the pass rate went from 7 to 10 percent) with other support built in.

Now back to my irregularly scheduled Zooming, coaching, and fiddling with actually interactive HTML fo rmath…

Thank you for the lead on Antiracism and UDL. Thank you also for wading more deeply into the critique of MOOCs as examples of academic elitism. I am a novice in this field, and your comments helped to confirm some of my suspicions.

I finished Hammond’s book a few weeks ago. I agree that she offers a number of concrete suggestions that would improve the effectiveness of MOOCs. I think specifically about her later chapters on helping students become independent learners by fostering an academic mindset. I am not sure how one gets from task performance to belief about oneself as a learner without specific feedback from a human with whom you have a trusting relationship. Your story about your experience underscored that when the feedback/relationship is disingenuous that engagement is tough to come by.

Again, thanks for the book recommendation. Anne

Nice to see you here! Thanks for joining the conversation!

Welp, I had a knocking on my zoom door for student using ALEKS, one of the algorithmic-driven programs. It works reasonably well here, because we’ve got instructors who teach conceptually; like Khan Academy, it’s very procedural… unlike KA it’s got a very good sequence. Some of its quirks are frustrating – my student worked through 10 sets of problems. It still states that there are 49 sets to go this week. We suspect that these are the ones that were on last week’s plate that weren’t completed but it defeats the purpose of the encouraging numbers when they don’t change.
I still imagine the potential for getting beyond answer-getting and developing more formative exercises (matching different representations; games where you blast of hte “that can’t be right!” answer first, or “click on the part you have to do something with” kinds of things. )

In the Video (07:14) High-Tech passing notes. this is such an amazing analogy. And super thank you for the comment that “this it is politics, political actions in a different way.” And this kind of view is the need to look at Ed-tech from a TOTAL DIFFERENT view.

And a great view of the broader impact of tech… (window, chairs etc…)

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There is definitely great allure in this idea of universal access (which the charismatics use to their full advantage). But the data on whether people are actually using the access is very revealing.

I was in engineering college during the prime years of MOOCs and I did watch a bunch of lectures but I have hardly completed 1-2 courses till date. One of my observations was that the Harvard/Stanford recorded lectures on YouTube were like a completely different ball game as compared to the stuff they put up on EdX/Coursera and that felt wrong. I greatly appreciated the recorded lectures on YouTube (despite the often poor audio/video quality and no question prompt gimmicks). I also find the whole chunking and short videos annoying. One good thing to come out of this is probably different formats of content for different kinds of learners to access.

Another side point for me is this idea in education about optimization, efficiency and treating learning as a factory process. When people come up with things like spaced repetition and deliberate practice, I see that it might help but I have zero interest in actually doing it. And if someone were to force me to (like we are doing to students today) it would have totally turned me off learning and intellectual pursuits. Why do we as an education system struggle so much with treating learners like humans and not objects to train?

For me one of the central questions is around standardization. Does everyone need to have the same education? My favorite part of learning experiences is finding personally meaningful connections and building on my interests. In that paradigm, these super-choreographed learnings sequences sound very boring and pointless. But what I think they can help with is very short explanations which can support and scaffold with just-in-time instruction like in a makerspace.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust online teaching and learning into the spotlight. Prior to the pandemic, online learning was often used as a supplement to more traditional classroom settings. For example, when I was completing my undergraduate degree in 2014-2018, professors used Moodle to assign assignments/quizzes to be completed after the lectures. Compared to now, my entire graduate program has been online, with no in-person lectures (although we occasionally have synchronous meetings). I believe the pandemic has taught us that meaningful education requires an aspect of social connection that cannot be fully recreated in an exclusively online setting (although there are ways to mimic it virtually). In my opinion, MOOCs absolutely have a benefit to providing accessible learning opportunities to a variety of individuals with varying learning needs, but they cannot fully replace in-person learning in all circumstances.