MOOCs And The “Student-Teacher Bond”

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MOOCs—massive open online courses—”discount the central component of effective teaching: the relationship forged between student and teacher,” writes Matt Levinson in a thought-provoking piece on the Edutopia website. Levinson, the head of the upper division at Marin Country Day School in California, notes that “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”:

“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.” (Read more here.)


I appreciate Matt’s reference to my writing (the piece from which my quote was taken is here), and I agree with him that MOOCs are most likely to work for those students who are already highly motivated and self-directed in their interests.

Just a few days ago, in fact, I posted about a study conducted by Columbia University’s Community College Research Center which found that students struggle in traditional classrooms also have a hard time learning online. In our excitement about MOOCs, let’s not forget that they may not be the educational solution for everyone.

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2 Responses to “MOOCs And The “Student-Teacher Bond””

  1. Sue Frantz says:

    I would like to see some research that compares learning from a MOOC with learning from a book. I’m having a hard time seeing the difference.

  2. I can now comment from the perspective of a MOOC dropout. I was determined to be among the 90% who complete the course, but my reason for dropping had nothing whatsoever to do with the instructor or relationship. In fact, I did feel a connection with the instructor whose personality and passion were evident in his recorded lectures, and in his quick and personal replies to email communication, despite having thousands of students. My reason for dropping was simply that life got in the way – job responsibilities increased, and personal events ate away time I had reserved for study. When something has to be eliminated due to time constraints, it is the MOOC that has the least investment and the lowest stakes. I do agree, however, that MOOCs are best for highly motivated, independent learners. But as one of those, I’m thrilled to have the option to repeat the course and try others in the future!

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