MOOCs: Progress Report

From Quartz:

Online education has been around for a long time. But massive open online courses are finally making it respectable. Maybe even cool. Let’s not forget, though, that they are still experiments. And despite being “massively overhyped” (even in the eyes of their most dyed-in-the-wool supporters), they are not actually having a massive impact on students yet. So let’s review what we’ve learned so far. Because if online education is going to be useful for learners, then it’s time for online learning to grow up.

Hundreds of courses are now available from dozens of the world’s best universities and professors. There’s been a steady stream of glowing public relations and growing credibility among employers. There’s even an acronym for massive open online courses that’s gone mainstream: MOOCs. The four major MOOC platforms (Coursera, edX, Udacity and Udemy) have attracted at least 4 million sign-ups to date. Many of those people are working adults looking to pick up new technical or business skills, or update old ones, in order to advance their careers.

So far, though, online courses are not building a massively better-skilled workforce.

Sure, a few free, open, online courses have generated eye-popping registration numbers, upwards of 200,000 in some cases. However the average enrollment for MOOCs is more like 30,000 to 50,000. The real problem, though, is that more than 90% of these would-be learners don’t finish. Many don’t even start the courses for which they are registered. And a lot of those who finish don’t take another one. That means the number of people actually learning anything substantial is much less massive than the PR suggests.

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  • Chad

    Beyond even the “failure” rates is the lack of any assessment and interaction with a “subject matter expert” over the material. There is no way in the open system to know if learning actually occurred. Further, with the amount of material available already online, I wonder what benefit most of these courses actually offer.

  • Phil Miller

    I wonder what benefit most of these courses actually offer.

    It’s something schools can put in their marketing material…

  • Mike Blyth

    I’ve taken three MOOC courses over the past six months, all in the area of IT. Some observations (fully realizing that a sample of 3 is just above an anecdote):

    * The effectiveness of the course depends a lot on the structure. That’s encouraging, because even the course I found least helpful could have been much better with different structure. Obviously, face-to-face classroom classes *also* vary a lot in quality because of structure.

    * If 5000 students finish a course, as in the last one I took, what does it matter that 100,000 started it? It’s most important to look at the outcome. Unlike a traditional class, a MOOC has essentially zero entry barriers and cost, so it’s perfectly fine to check out a course and decide that it is not worth continuing, or not possible given one’s background and time.

    * The most serious limitation is the impossibility of expert interaction with tens of thousands of students. This is ameliorated with the use of volunteer TAs, discussion boards and the like, but it is still a serious issue. Part of running a MOOC well is making sure that the expert feedback *does* trickle down, even if it’s in somewhat generic form.

    * Across the three courses I took (Stanford, UC Berkeley, and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health), I estimate that I learned about 60-75% of what I would have learned for the same time input from a traditional course. Not terribly efficient, but it was free! In the best course, I probably learned 90%, and in the worst, 60%.

    * I’m not sure why the courses are coming under fire at all, but if some are touting them as a replacement for face-to-face education, I can understand the resistance. Certainly they are not that. However, the other side of the coin is that most of the world, indeed many people in the US, will not have the chance to take equivalent face-to-face courses, so MOOCs are extremely valuable. Given that they’re just in their infancy, I think the best approach is to work as hard as possible to leverage their potential by improving their quality, recognizing their potential for mass transfer of knowledge (and even creativity), rather than simply compare them with traditional methods.

  • David P Himes

    I’m engaged in a MOOC right now, Foundation of Business Strategy, with 90,000+ students enrolled. The lectures are good. The quizzes are overly simplistic. The case discussions are robust, but lack much discipline and there is a lot duplication of comments because there are too many comments to truly read. Our final grade will be based upon peer-reviews.

    Quite clearly, this format will work for some topics but not as effectively for other topics.

  • John L

    University of California has been slowly rolling out interactive online classes, testing after each class to assess quality control, preparedness for next learning level, etc.. So far, few classes have failed the “brick and mortar” test — virtual students are being equally prepared to move on to higher level course material. These are full UC credit classes and NOT shown on transcript as “online”. But these online experiments are size-restricted and interactive, with each student using a web cam and head-set. Class TA’s personally assess each student’s online engagement, familiarity with course reading, participation in real-time F2F class discussions (via web cam with every student’s mug live on screen), etc.. typically over 6-8 weeks.

    Once you exceed a certain class size, I don’t see how a TA can interact with every student. Then again, some physical UC classes have hundreds of students, so the same problems are found in brick and mortar learning. There’s a new bill in the California legislature that would allow many new UC classes to be placed online, which would raise UC’s pathetic 4-year grad rate (60-70%) to hopefully something closer to 80-90%. Many students currently can’t get the classes they need to graduate in 4 years.

    There’s no stopping the growth of virtual education. I see it continuing to expand at a rapid clip, as we learn how to maintain quality control. I’m sensing that hybrid education (mix of physical and virtual) will be the norm by 2025-30. But I’m wondering if this trend won’t put a LOT of schools out of business, as students gravitate to the highest rated schools who will all be facilitating online classes. And if any student can take a for-credit degree from Brown or Northwestern or Columbia, does that make high school SATs and GPAs irrelevant to a student’s enrollment? Virtuality is a social leveler in so many ways, education being just one example.