2012 was declared 'The Year of the MOOC' by the New York Times; the expectation was that MOOCs would have a disruptive impact on traditional higher education by offering the same learning experience but at zero cost. The last three years have found that conventional colleges continue to thrive and fees continue to escalate so maybe there wasn't such a revolution, after all. Many would argue that, whatever their merits, MOOCs do not, and cannot, offer the same education as found in conventional colleges or universities.
The first difference is the obvious one of social milieu. Students studying on-campus are part of a social group where the same cannot be said of MOOC students. While online learners may participate in forum discussions this is far from the same experience as students might have in face to face seminars or discussions with a tutor. Moreover, student life is more than just study; social development is a large part of the general learning experience in a traditional college environment. For many students this will be their first time living independently from home and family. College gives a fairly sheltered introduction to the 'real world' largely free from family and work responsibilities and moving in circles made up, in the main, of people of a similar age. Lastly, being part of a cohort moving through a course gives a sense of impetus and encouragement. Students are less likely to drop out of courses if they feel part of a group with a responsibility to that group. Clearly the social experience is very different for students on campus and those taking part in MOOCs.
In a similar vein, there is a big difference in the people enrolling in conventional courses and MOOCs. Students to the former need to go through a competitive application and admissions process and to meet specific prerequisites. By contrast, MOOCs are, by definition, open access; there are no mandatory prerequisites and anyone can join simply by clicking a link. A consequence of this is that while college students will all have broadly similar educational background, MOOC students will range from those with little or no experience of higher education, or the subject matter, to those already holding higher degrees. This makes for a very different experience in discussions where those with prior knowledge may come to dominate whereas in a conventional situation all learners would be on a more level playing field. Students in MOOCs will also come from very different social and cultural backgrounds. A MOOC may have students from all continents, ranging from school age to those in retirement, from every possible cultural, linguistic and political background. While this may make MOOCs discussions more interesting and challenging, this is still a big difference from the relatively homogeneous student body found in most in 'normal' universities.
Possibly the biggest difference between MOOCs and conventional study is in the nature and quality of learning activities. Students in a normal college course would expect to participate in a number of different learning activities such as lectures, seminars, and tutorials, practical work such as lab, workshop or studio sessions, and written work such as essays and exams. MOOC students have a far narrower range of opportunities. Video lectures replace live lectures but without the ability to interact with the instructor in real time. Quizzes form the majority of assessment, where in a college course they would typically be a relatively small part. Written work, where undertaken, is much shorter and peer-assessed rather than getting feedback from a qualified assessor. Finally, the quality of assessment in MOOCs and conventional courses is radically different. For a student in a normal college situation, assessments are typically a once only opportunity. You sit a quiz or an exam, get your grade and move on. For MOOC students the situation is almost always far more generous. Almost all courses allow assessments to be repeated a number of times, some an unlimited number, and most give detailed feedback on which answers were wrong each time. This means that those who make the effort to record their answers each time are almost guaranteed a perfect score. MOOC students undertake a narrower range of activities, face less rigorous assessment and have little opportunity to complete substantial written work.
Some of the differences between MOOCs and conventional courses are positive; the wider and more diverse mix of students can make for a stimulating discussion and the expertise and knowledge of some peers can provide superb support. However, MOOC students tend to miss out on the social aspects of both formal and informal learning and the learning activities open to them do not match those of students in more typical college situations. While MOOCs may offer great opportunities to learn they cannot be directly equated with courses undertaken in conventional colleges or universities. Where MOOCs must really shape up if they are to be taken seriously is in the rigour of their assessment. While I don't want to appear over modest, the fact that I've achieved 100% in so many courses says more about the standard of assessment than my inherent ability.