Education Technology | MOOCs | January 2013

Making Sense of MOOCs: An Interview with UC Irvine's Gary W. Matkin, Ph.D.

by Dean Tsouvalas |

One of the biggest advancements in education technology is the Massive Open Online Course, or the MOOC. Even though MOOC was one of 2012’s most popular words, the concept still remains a mystery to those who haven’t taken or administered an online course.

I spoke with Gary W. Matkin, Ph.D., Dean of Continuing Education, Distance Learning and Summer Session at University of California, Irvine. Dean Matkin has pioneered online education and distance learning and has instituted is the first online master’s program in the University of California system. We wanted to get Dean Matkin’s expert opinion on the rise of the MOOC, and where online education is going from here.


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SA: How can students make sense of MOOCs?

Matkin: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are part of the larger open education movement that has been around for over 10 years. This movement is often referred to as Open Educational Recourses (OER), OpenCourseWare (OCW), or open textbooks. The supply of OER and OCW has grown exponentially with the OCW Consortium offering over 25,000 of its university member’s open courses, YouTube EDU offering over 700,000 video lectures, and iTunesU offering over 500,000 lectures and learning objects.

The problem with this huge supply of open material is that quality varies. In addition, this type of education is largely passive in the learning process, that is, while widely available it provides no help in the learning process and no possibility of gaining certification of knowledge from its use.

MOOCs are serving their purpose. So far, MOOCs have placed a high standard on the quality of the learning pathways (courses) so that they are coherently sequenced sets of learning objects tied together with a strong narrative thread and accompanied by learning aids such as peer review of student work, supplemental learning material, and some (usually automated) feedback on learning achievements. Recently, they also are offering some forms of certified learning assessment, some of which has the possibility of becoming recognized college credit.

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SA: What makes a great MOOC?

Matkin: A great MOOC is an experience that helps you achieve your learning goal(s) efficiently and in a stimulating manner. It keeps you motivated to learn more. Usually this means that a MOOC course is designed well, provides you with constant feedback on learning achievement, and offers the opportunity to interact with fellow learners. Great MOOCs also offer alternative learning pathways either within the course itself with “branching” for those who need more assistance in learning or the availability for supplementary learning help including volunteer tutors. 

SA: How does a student find the best MOOC for them? 

Matkin: First and foremost, find a subject that interests you or that you are highly motivated to master. Serious learning projects require serious effort and such effort is best sustained through an innate interest in the subject. In fact, less than 10 percent of the students that sign up for a MOOC actually complete the course. Secondary choice factors concern the design of the course (will I be able to complete the assignments on time), the person who designed the course, and the institution which sponsored the course. Also, very soon MOOC course evaluations completed by those who have taken the course will be available for your review. So make sure you have enough time to devote to the MOOC that you are taking. Do take the time to interact with the learning community developed around the course. And finally, do some research about the course you might select before you make your decision. 

SA: What do you admire about the MOOC or open education movement?

Matkin: MOOCs further the goal of the OCW and OER movements, both providing everyone with the opportunity to learn anything, anywhere, anytime, for free. MOOCs are part of a very broad movement toward universal higher education, where learning is ubiquitous and merges with every aspect of our everyday life. 

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SA: What are the limits of online learning and MOOCs?

Matkin: Full online learning (as opposed to hybrid learning) does not afford the opportunity of face-to-face interaction with fellow students or the instructor and the spontaneity that such interaction allows. However, there are many ways in which this can be mediated—through face-to-face, real time teleconferencing technology, and the formation of virtual learning communities. What is often not recognized are the tremendous gains available through new learning technologies for the assistance of the teaching/learning process. For instance, these technologies now provide large amounts of collective and individualized information about learning, information that can be used to intervene early when students are in difficulty, or to improve a course over time based on objective data.