MOOC Fizzles

Rachelle Peterson

In the fall of 2011, when Google engineer and Stanford computer scientist Sebastian Thrun posted videos of his lectures from his Stanford Artificial Intelligence course on the Internet, he launched the age of the MOOC—the “massive open online courses” that captured the hopes and imaginations of higher education visionaries around the world. One hundred sixty thousand students from 190 countries signed up for Thrun’s free course, and within a few months Thrun left Stanford to launch his MOOC company, Udacity. The moniker, a portmanteau drawn of “university” and “audacity,” signifies Thrun’s ambitions. In a 2012 interview with Wired, he predicted that within fifty years the world will have just ten traditional institutions of higher learning remaining, the rest replaced with digitized online alternatives.1

Meanwhile on the East Coast, MIT partnered with Harvard to launch the EdX MOOC consortium, which has grown to include more than sixty colleges and universities. Stanford computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller launched another MOOC platform, Coursera, which now partners with nearly one hundred institutions worldwide. When Stanford president John Hennessy warned the press, “there’s a tsunami coming,” he sent a warning to the academic establishment as well.2 A seismic collision of higher education’s cost and availability would burst the college bubble—wiping out lower-tier institutions and opening access to students whose budgets or timetables don’t currently permit them to attend college. Borrowing Hennessy’s metaphor for a New York Times op-ed, “The Campus Tsunami,” David Brooks instigated his own tsunami as major media outlets, bloggers, education reformers, even university administrators began to praise the MOOC’s potential to reimagine the ailing, crowded, over-priced system of higher education.3

Whatever the maladies of academia, the MOOC medicine has worked no cure. If anything, it has drained—leech-like—the academy’s resources as institutions invest hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless staff hours into developing online courses that have done little to make higher education cheaper or more accessible. The vision of reusable, prerecorded lectures displacing live instruction hasn’t come true. No brick and mortar classes have been cancelled and replaced by third-party MOOCs. A growing number of institutions let students exchange MOOC certificates for transfer credit, but startlingly low numbers have stepped forward to do so. At Colorado State University (CSU)-Global, which in 2012 became the first American university to grant credit for MOOCs, not a single student has yet claimed MOOC credits. CSU-Global is an online degree completion program whose students—working professionals on the lookout for cheap, flexible college credits—one might imagine are those most likely to appreciate MOOCs.

A handful of institutions have attempted to supplement their classrooms with MOOCs, either by showing MOOC video lectures in class, or by “flipping” the classroom so that students watch lectures at home and work through problem sets in class. On the whole, though, colleges and universities have been much more eager to produce MOOCs than to use MOOCs—and when they do use them, they tend to rely only on their own content. Georgia Tech, which has launched a MOOC master’s degree in computer science through Udacity, and San Jose State University, which has been attempting (unsuccessfully, thus far) to teach certain introductory courses through Udacity, reflect this line of thinking.

Students, too, have eyed MOOCs with skepticism. Thousands may register for courses, but only about 10 percent finish and pass. Katy Jordan, a doctoral student from the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University in the United Kingdom, calculated an average completion rate as low as 7 percent.4 Princeton’s “History of the World Since 1300” logged the lowest passing rate at 0.8 percent, while “Functioning Programming Principles in Scala” from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland boasted the highest passing rate at 19.2 percent.5

Do those statistics indicate that MOOCs offer rigor? Likely not. Most MOOCs rely on multiple choice quizzes graded by a computer, and grant students multiple attempts on assignments. Credit-bearing MOOCs typically require proctored exams, but research papers, live peer discussions, and interactions with professors are rare. MOOC dropouts rarely fail out; more often, they quit. In a recent study, the software and education technology companies Qualtrics and Instructure found that the top two reasons students give for failing to complete a MOOC are that they got too busy and that “the learning experience didn’t match my expectations.”6 MOOCs offer knowledge and information, to be sure, though that information drips through an intellectual IV stripped of dialogue and exploration. MOOCs fail to provide the intellectual community and the interaction with peers and professors that make college more than textbook training.

If MOOCs succeed, they do so as technical professional training, not as surrogate college campuses. The typical MOOC user is a mid-career professional in search of specific skills training and refresher courses—not a twenty-something student seeking an alternative to college. A November 2013 working paper from the University of Pennsylvania Office of the Provost found that of the 34,779 students enrolled in U Penn MOOCs, 80 percent already had earned a two- or four-year degree, and 44 percent had completed some graduate education.7 Penn’s case is not an outlier. A 2012 survey of Coursera registrants found that 50 percent were already employed in fields related to their course, 20 percent were in graduate school, and about 11 percent were currently undergraduate students.8 Recognizing the unexpected demographic of MOOC users, Thrun has actually backed away from his earlier ambitions and admitted that MOOCs serve better as complements, not competitors, to brick and mortar institutions. He’s retooling Udacity to focus on advanced career training in technical fields rather than the broad-based survey courses typical of undergraduate studies.

MOOCs neither replicate nor rival traditional undergraduate education. They don’t pressure higher education to reform its profligate ways. Nor do they provide a meaningful return to discussion-based interactive education. Instead, they offer a kind of technical audio textbook that disseminates information to a widespread audience, apart from the dialogue and the rigorous analysis demanded in a live classroom. For that, there is no replacement.

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