5 minute read  written by  . Published on May 17, 2016

With the growing popularity of MOOCs, many have asked whether MOOCs really are a big innovation after all. Aren’t they just an online resource after all, a kind of digital textbook? If so, is that really a big innovation? We will explore this question, first by comparing and contrasting MOOCs with books, and then, over the next two weeks, exploring two case studies where a popular MOOC professor has also published a book, and getting their thoughts on the matter.

Are MOOCs Like (educational) Books?

Why some people think of MOOCs as digital textbooks? It is not a big leap: in the academic world, often the same experts (usually professors) create both. We know that MOOCs are already sometimes used in blended classrooms, and thus act as digital resources. But the accelerating trend is like the continued growth of MOOCs, as well as a recent trend towards self-paced courses, making the materials more readily available on a persistent basis

However, making a simple case that MOOCs are evolving towards e-books would paint a misleading picture of an assembly line of university factory-pressed MOOCs being churned out. While this is no doubt happening, we are also seeing increased diversification. There are MOOCs for teachers (e.g. MOOC-Ed), high-school students, the creative arts, and MOOCs for entrepreneurs. Having said this, most of the popular MOOCs have strong similarities with each other, and they have four major things in common with books:

  1. They have an educational purpose, to provide expert, credible information  on a topic to a broad audience that is willing to engage with them.
  2. They cover topics that require focused, sustained thought, covering a sequence of related materials and concepts
  3. They require significant time and resources to create, and thus they usually require sponsorship from a organizations (publishing houses, universities, etc.)
  4. They are acknowledged to be highly valuable resources, but even when offered at low or no cost (for books, via borrowing, for example), they still require significant marketing/distribution effort to raise awareness of them.

Given these commonalities, are MOOCs just the new digital version of educational textbooks? It is tempting to say yes, but lets take a closer look at some key aspects of books vs. MOOCs.

Becoming more alike or more different?

Below is a table comparing some more aspects of books & MOOCs:

Typical Educational Books Typical MOOCs
Purpose Provide deep information in a particular topic area. Often, replicate aspects of a classroom course experience.
Audience Any interested persons among the reading public Any interested persons, particular those interested in college-type classes.
Cost Nominal; potentially free with access to a library. Free (potentially excepting certificates); requires internet bandwidth.
Reach Well-established distribution and marketing channels; highly crowded. Can be wide over the internet-enabled public globally; not very competitive yet, but will become increasingly so.
Creators Experts who can convince a publisher there is a market and will back them. Professors or expert instructors who can convince universities/organizations to support them.
Production Lengthy development process; professional editors; publishing house. Intense development process; professional/trained video producers; universities; platform providers.

Here are some reflections based on the above comparison.

  • The popular modern MOOC movement was based on the goal of replicating aspects of a college class. This has resulted in some very unique practices: short, bite-sized clips of well-designed explanatory videos, auto-graded multiple choice quizzes that require careful thought to construct; and discussion forums where instructors and staff can oversee conversations and drop in as necessary. These result in more interactive elements than books, and features/practices are evolving further as MOOCs start to move away from college course paradigms.
  • MOOCs are certainly riding the wave of the global shift to online channels for information gathering (i.e. phone books to search engines). But it is clear that the days of the 100,000+ enrollment MOOCs are becoming rare, with the proliferation of MOOCs. At some point there will be a tipping point where people looking for a particular topic online will find multiple potential MOOCs to take. This may make reach and marketing more important issues for MOOCs, approaching the important role they play with books.
  • It is also clear that, though there is something very democratic in creating content in the Internet Age, prestigious experts who want to create top-quality MOOC still requires strong organizational backing, to have access to quality production resources and well-known platforms. As topics become more competitive, and resources become more stretched, the dynamics of creating highly-popular MOOCs may start to follow that of creating best-selling books.

We can see that these trends point to the convergence of MOOCs with books in their marketing aspects, but at the same time, MOOCs are expanding beyond the classroom-replication experience, allowing them to broaden their scope, and be something more. Which side will dominate? Will they be commercialized and commoditized, or will they become more innovative and diverse? Or is that too extreme a dichotomy?

Although it would be difficult to speculate on this, there is a connection between MOOCs and books that we can examine more closely now–because some popular MOOC professors have also written books! Class Central sat down with two distinguished educators to understand their experiences.

Two Case Studies: Dr. Learning Smarts and Dr. Happy Smarts

We will take a look at two cases over the next two weeks. In Part Two, we will look at Dr. Barbara Oakley. She teaches the #1 most popular MOOC of all time, Learning How to Learn, on Coursera. Dr. Oakley shared her experiences writing her book, A Mind for Numbers, before creating her MOOC, which is largely drawn from the book topics. But we’ll see that she ended up largely reorganizing and re-developing a lot of the material to optimize it for the MOOC.

In Part Three, we will look at Dr. Raj Raghunathan (aka “Dr. Happy Smarts”) and his popular MOOC entitled A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment, also on Coursera. Dr. Raghunathan finished his book — If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? — after his MOOC, and we will see how the MOOC affected the book.

So stay tuned, as we dive further into this topic of…MOOC vs. Book!