Landing : Athabascau University

Cargo cult courses

Richard Feynman dismissed quite a lot of allegedly scientific research, notably targeting the fields of education and psychology, as 'cargo cult science' . Such research looks like science, just as the South Seas cargo cults' airports looked like airports, with 'runways', fires along the side of them to mimic landing lights, wooden control towers and headphones made of coconut shells with bars of bamboo made to look like antennas on the heads of the 'air traffic controller'.  But this didn't make aeroplanes full of cargo land any more than what looks like a scientific method makes something into science. 

Things haven't changed much since Feynman came up with the metaphor, at least in education. My heart sinks when I receive yet another 'experimental' study that demonstrates empirically that some general kind of intervention works better than some other general kind of intervention because, with a vanishingly small number of exceptions, mostly for very trivial issues, it shows no such thing. 

But that's not what this post is about.

I'm going to be writing more soon on how LMSs are cargo cult technologies and have a book in progress that looks at why scientific methods are risky for educational research, but my target for today is MOOCs. Specifically, I am talking about the majority xMOOCs here, the ones that look like traditional university courses, that tend to be the products of EdX or Coursera and their ilk, rather than the very different and far more interesting cMOOCs that started the trend and that employ very different and un-courselike methods, or those that are designed differently and that do more to recognize the unique issues of the modality beyond a bit of lecture-chunking. The brush that I am about to use to tar MOOCs is specifically aimed at the mainstream varieties that typically take a conventional university taught course and make it available to the public, with little more than minor cosmetic changes.

Cargo cult MOOCs

Accreditation is a huge elephant in the MOOC room. Sadly, to a large extent, in a traditional institution courses exist for accreditation far more than for what they teach. I wish it were not so but a great many courses are driven by grades and the need for a certificate, and are often designed accordingly, with learning outcomes made to fit assessment problems in a systematic way, often separating assessment from learning and making assessment the purpose rather than a functional component of the learning process. Accreditation in MOOCs is a big problem and most try to avoid more than a certificate of completion although, contrarily, many use the trappings of accreditation without the power to reliably provide it. They mimic the methods and processes for no good reason. Cargo cult courses.

Courses slot into programs, are part of an educational infrastructure. Courses are designed to fit into broader systems that they belong to, gain credence from peer review and richly interlocked processes across the wider educational landscape. Courses and associated accreditation are as much a currency in the job market as they are a means to learn something. Courses play a ritual role in how people define themselves - courses are rites of passage, ways to share with others the fact that we have trodden on the coals. I proudly proclaim my role in the world by prefixing my name with 'Dr'. It's a sign that I have been through a formal process, leaped over a set of hurdles, slain the beast. I wear my doctoral gown and correct people who try to call me 'Mr' precisely because courses play a much bigger role than containers for learning. 'Completion' is a meaningful and important term in a traditional course because it implies something more than just an acquisition of skills or knowledge: it demonstrates that a very particular kind of obstacle has been overcome in a socially significant way. To a large extent, MOOCs bypass all of this.

Courses fit into schedules. That's why we do bizarre things like split them into uniformly sized units and make them all last for multiples of the same period. Outside an institutional context where resources need to be managed in a certain way, that makes no sense whatsoever. I'm pleased to note that this aspect of MOOCs is slowly changing as people realize they do not have to fit semesters and timetables any more, but it is still way too common a pattern.

Courses fit into rules and regulations that determine how they are developed, what they are expected to achieve, the roles teachers and students should play within them, hierarchies of control, attendance expectations, behavioural norms, commitment expectations, structural patterns, and many other things. MOOCs largely lack that surrounding set of rules, norms and assumptions, yet are typically designed as though it were still in place.

MOOCs replicate course patterns, often skeuomorphically, without reflecting on why those patterns exist. Take lectures, for instance. These made sense at some point as a relatively cost-effective compromise that distributed a rare and limited resource (the professor) to a relatively large number of people. In meatspace, that is not a terrible idea, at least in principle. You can certainly see how it made sense and why it had to happen. In cyberspace there is no reason apart from habit to do that and yet, with a small amount of lip service paid to some basic learning theory about chunking, lectures play a dominant role in most MOOCs.

MOOCs do industrialization in spades, with few concessions to customization, adaptivity or personalization. They present methods and content that are aimed at a largely non-existent average student and that simply cannot cater well for all. We build courses like that in institutions because it is a fairly cost-effective compromise: partly we know we can cater for differences in other ways such as personal tutoring or customizing lectures in classes, and partly we know students will be driven to succeed regardless of what we do because of their commitment and the investment they have made in the educational process. They are not going to deliberately fail one course when their degrees depend on it, no matter how terribly it is taught or how irrelevant it is to them. MOOCs do not have such fallbacks.

In brief, courses of the kind we build in schools and universities make little sense if the objective is to support learning rather than to run an institution, and one that plays a very particular set of societal roles and that contains many codependent structures of which courses form a part. MOOCs appear to want to support learning but continue to be designed as though they were also doing the other stuff.

It doesn't have to be this way. The approaches used in connectivist MOOCs, for example, make a lot of sense if the purpose is to gain knowledge. There have also been some very interesting experiments with tools like Venture Lab or courses using open pedagogies that are not so objectives-oriented or content driven. MOOCs are evolving and the target of my criticism is becoming smaller, but it is still way too common.

The takeaway

MOOCs (xMOOCs) look like courses, smell like courses, use the same methods as courses, have teachers and students much like courses, but they are no more courses than the airports of the cargo cults on South Seas islands were airports. Just like airports need aircraft, schedules, and a host of organizations and processes to function, so courses are deeply and fundamentally embedded in their contexts and make little sense at all without them.

Jon Dron

Jon Dron

professional learner
About me

I am a full professor and former Chair of the School of Computing & Information Systems, and a member of The Technology-Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University. I am one of...


  • Love this post. I'm the co-founder of a startup doing a mobile learning app for adults (called Ellumia), and I share your opinions on MOOCs. I also have the same issues with more traditional online learning (aka Moodle etc.), which also mimic offline courses but lack a lot of the context, although usually the instructor is able to be more available. It's these deficiencies that led us to take a stab at making our own platform, based on research on how learning happens, rather than institutional or instructor schedules. I'd love to have your input on what we're doing–would you be at interested?

    - Katharine Osborne

    Anonymous February 19, 2014 - 10:44am

  • Thanks Katharine - I'm always interested in alternative ways of helping people to learn: contact me!

    Jon Dron February 23, 2014 - 12:52pm

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