Massive open online courses were supposed to revolutionize — and democratize — higher education.
But two years since their debut, the initial buzz seems like nothing but hype.
Millions have signed up for online courses sponsored by elite colleges, yet they report high dropout rates and disappointing student performance among those who stick it out. A quietly released report last week on a partnership between San Jose State University and major course provider Udacity found that disadvantaged kids performed particularly poorly and students found the courses confusing. Collective statistics aren’t available, but by one tracker’s accountmost “massive online open courses” — known as MOOCs — have completion rates of less than 10 percent.
And the courses have yet to figure out a sustainable business model. Earlier this month, provider Coursera announced it earned $1 million by charging students for course verification certificates, but that’s just a sliver of what really drives the organization: $65 million in investment capital from ed tech and mainstream venture capital firms.
“If I’m learning to code, how in the MOOC can I build something to demonstrate that?” he said. “Rethinking assessment is a really big piece.”
The open nature of the courses could be their undoing: They won’t last long if providers don’t figure out a business model. Colleges have offered online courses for years, but typically to enrolled students who are paying tuition and earning credits. For-profit providers Coursera and Udacity are backed by investors, who expect the providers to make money. MIT and Harvard supported nonprofit edX with $60 million, but the company is looking for a way to sustain itself. Anant Agarwal, president of edX, said the company is experimenting with fees for completion certificates.
Now, I will speak as somebody who has tried out multiple courses on: EdX, Coursera, and Udacity.
Of the MOOCs I've registered for, I've done the following and these are non-overlapping groupings of MOOCs: completed and gotten a "grade" (2 of them), not gotten a grade but did some of the assignments/exams (3), watched all the lectures but didn't do the assignments (2), watched a couple lectures and then stopped going (3), and registered at the last minute so that I could download all the files (including videos) for later reference (2). For one course, the girls sat with me and watched some of the videos (this was the science of gastronomy) -- I didn't have them watch it all, but I had them watch the ones where they did experiments because we could try some of them out directly (like trying to eat flavored potato chips while holding your nose).
Thing is, I already have multiple degrees and credits in all sorts of things. I love learning and I actually have paid lots of my own money for non-credentialled education (not as much as going to college, but thousands of dollars even so).
I love having all this free stuff available. I like having the assignments/exams available to confirm I did learn appropriately. And my favorite assignments to work on involved coding in python -- and yes, sometimes the autograder software screwed up, but on the whole it was a very good experience (that was at Udacity). Some of the MOOCs, I find the assignments less than compelling, though the videos and notes are great.
I don't think anybody should be shocked that poor students do poorly when one has to be a self-motivated learner to really exploit the courses. It's kind of silly to bitch that the completion rate is less than 10% given that the absolute number of people completing the course dwarfs even Psych 101 classes in a butt-in-seats model.
Aw, only 10,000 people fully completed the course? What a pity.
In many of the cases, the students completing do not have access to these types of resources locally. It's fabulous all around...except....
.... the business model aspect, and that is troubling. Because if they can't make money, some of this nifty free stuff will go away. To be sure, OpenCourseWare at MIT (and elsewhere) is still there, but in general you get piecemeal syllabus materials, and it's not as nicely produced as these made-for-MOOC-sites classes. There's free wikipedia, too, of course (even if Jimmy Wales stares at you from time to time). But I'm not as troubled as the investors, I am sure.
So yeah, I bet some of these MOOCs will go away, but some will stick around. And that poor students will generally do worse than the good ones. And those who are deeply invested in the butt-in-seats model will bitch about the MOOC model.
How's that for bold predictions. Woo.