Massive Open Online Courses! Oh, my!


There are few things more exciting than the chance to get an advanced degree from Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology at little or no cost.

It is small wonder then that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) is taking the world by storm. MOOC offers so much learning, it has created a market for online course selection aggregators such as Coursera, Educause, and +Acumen. These websites are dedicated to helping prospective students navigate through all the free knowledge offered by MOOC to ensure they enroll in the courses that best meet their interest. But, those seeking to jump right into the MOOC online learning environment are advised to do so as an educated learner.

For instance, in his article, Free Online Courses Keep Retirees in the Know, Walecia Konrad (2015) explored why an increased number of retirees have gravitated toward the free online MOOC courses. During interviews, several of these “nontraditional students” led Konrad to conclude retirees are becoming increasingly comfortable with web-based learning. But, one retiree did tell him that she was disappointed with her MOOC instructor.  She said all he did was stare into the camera and give a lecture. This led me to believe that the professor’s attempt at integrating traditional classroom-based Face-To-Face teaching with MOOC online learning obviously did not translate well (Konrad, 2015).

Online Learning Platform Instructional Design Challenges

It is well known within the field that design instruction for online learning presents a unique set of challenges.  After studying this matter, Powell (2003) advised instructional designers to incorporate features that create a comfortable environment for web-based learners. Powell said this could include ensuring new students are eased into online learning, avoid creating complex training portals that include difficult hierarchical navigation structures, providing access to timely communications via email or other mediums, including computer tutoring as an aspect of the design, and providing only clear and concise communications and instructions on the training website.

As an instructional designer, this made me stop and contemplate: What instructional design approach is most suited for online learning then? My research points toward  Problem-Based Learning (PBL).

Problem-Based Learning

PBL is nothing new.  This constructivist approach was originally designed for medical education and was based on a learning model created by Howard Barrows (1985; 1992). The model was later outlined by Lebow (1993) then elaborated upon by Duffy, Lowyck, and Jonassen (1993) and Brooks & Brooks (1993) later that year. John R. Savery and Thomas M. Duffy (2001) explored the theoretical principles of PBL to determine if the model aligned with the accepted pragmatic constructivist instructional designs model advocated by Richard Rorty (1991) and von Glaserfeld (189).  It did and, as a result, PBL gained fuel for wider application. Today, PBL is incorporated into almost all educational curriculum including business and education instruction.

Simply stated, PBL is an instructional approach that gives students ownership for their learning. Instructors play the role of coaches that interact with students only within a metacognitive mentorship framework.  PBL challenges students to solve relevant and real world problems that impact them personally, provides them with access to information to study various alternatives for solving the problem, and then allows them to engage in self-directed learning. Once a student decides upon a solution, their knowledge is tested by the instructor and peers and further refined until no additional feedback or improvements can be noted.  PBL does not include pre-determined solutions or methodologies as this would interfere with the objective of leaving the students to explore, test and create their own solutions. PBL does not include standardized tests. Success is determined by the student’s ability to develop and evaluate problem-solving strategies, identify and locate information, evaluate and implement problem-solving techniques.

Jennie’s Perspective

Why do I feel PBL is better suited for online education? Because PBL includes the components required to create the type of rich learning environment needed to motivate online students to successfully learn and complete courses. This is essential in the absence of place, instructor-led learning and lack of social interactions (Savery & Duffy, 2001).

PBL anchors learning activities toward the larger task of solving a bigger problem. This approach also promotes learner ownership of their learning process, facilitates learner’s engagement by challenging them to use critical thinking, enables them to reflect upon what they are learning at each step, tests their new knowledge at each stage, and requires both individual and group consensus that the problem was solved.


In conclusion, I find the aspirations of MOOC very, very exciting. People can now learn from the best institutions and the best instructors in the world. The ramifications would be further enhanced if what they are learning is focused on solving real-world societal issues.  If this does not sound exciting to you too, I suggest you register for free MOOC course yourself.



Konrad, W. (2015, March 19). Free Online Courses Keep Retirees in the Know – The New York Times. Retrieved from

Powell, W. (2003). Essential design elements for successful online courses. Journal of Geoscience Education, 51(2), 221-230. doi:10.5408/1089-9995-51.2.221

Savery, J. R., & Duffy, T. M. (2001). Problem Based Learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework (16-01). Bloomington, IN: Center for Research on Learning and Technology.

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