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.