Massive open online courses (MOOCs), - online platforms offering courses and educational materials to very large numbers of people, - captured our imagination in the Fall of 2011 when, unexpectedly, a free online course in artificial intelligence given by two Stanford professors attracted 160,000 students. The NY Times called 2012 The Year of the MOOC. Three major MOOC platforms were launched that year, the for-profit, VC-backed Udacity and Coursera, which were each started by Stanford faculty members; and the not-for-profit edX, a collaborative venture of MIT and Harvard. They established partnerships with a number of universities which offer their own online courses on the platforms. Other institutions around the world have also launched their own MOOCs.
Looking at all this activity, an October, 2012 Time cover story asked an important question: “Can a new breed of online megacourses finally offer a college education to more people for less money?” MOOCs seemed to be the answer. A higher education, whether from four-year colleges or vocational schools, is more important than ever for most well-paying jobs. Yet, the costs of obtaining such an education have been rapidly rising in the US and other advanced economies, and are beyond the reach of most young people in emerging economies.
But, as is generally the case with major disruptive innovations, realizing the promise takes hard work, considerable experimentation and quite a bit longer than originally expected. Several months ago we started seeing articles with titles like Are We Mooc’d Out?, which asked if along with being The Year of the MOOC, 2012 may also be the year when MOOCs reached the zenith of the hype cycle that emerging technologies inevitable go through. Having achieved the peak of inflated expectations, MOOCS seemed to now be falling into the trough of disillusionment.
The fast rise and disappointing results of MOOCs is the subject of a recent Fast Company profile of Sebastian Thrun. Thrun is one of the Stanford professors involved in the 2011 AI course and a co-founder of Udacity. The article starts out by describing the excitement generated by the original course:
“Some 160,000 people sign up: young men dodging mortar attacks in Afghanistan, single mothers struggling to support their children in the United States, students in more than 190 countries. The youngest kid in the class is 10; the oldest is 70. Most struggle with the material, but a good number thrive. When the Professor ranks the scores from the final exam, he sees something shocking: None of the top 400 students goes to Stanford. They all took the class on the Internet. The experiment starts to look like something more.”
But, the initial excitement soon turned to disappointment as data started to come in. Fewer than 10% of students enrolled in Udacity actually finished their online courses, and not all of them received a passing grade. “[F]or every 100 pupils who enrolled in a free course, something like five actually learned the topic. If this was an education revolution, it was a disturbingly uneven one.”
Two separate December, 2013 reports came to similar conclusions. A study conducted by a team from the University of Pennsylvania analyzed the behavior of a million users in 16 Penn courses on the Coursera platform. It found that course completion rates ranged from 2 to 14 percent, with an average of 4 percent across all courses. User participation fell off dramatically after the first couple of weeks. Only about half of those registered viewed at least one of the lectures in their course.
In addition to confirming the high decline rate of participation in MOOCs, a second study by a Princeton team uncovered “embarrassing problems for massive open online courses: Not only does student participation decline dramatically throughout the new generation of Web-based courses, but the involvement of teachers in online discussions makes it worse.”
Thrun thought that the low completion rates in his early classes would be a temporary problem that he could get around. He tried different approaches. He personally devised a highly interactive introductory statistics class aimed at students who did not have to be particularly good at math or programming. He hired mentors to moderate class forums and offer help via live chats. He partnered with San Jose State University to offer a few courses for credit at a very low price. But in the end, none of the approaches yielded satisfactory results.
“We have a lousy product,” Thurn is quoted as saying in the Fast Company profile. “It was a painful moment. . . The sort of simplistic suggestion that MOOCs are going to disrupt the entire education system is very premature.”
But he didn’t give up. Instead, he turned Udacity’s focus from college courses to vocational skills. Udacity is now working with industry, where the motivation for completing an online course is directly related to employment. It has partnered with a number of companies to teach courses on the use of their products, at the end of which students receive a certificate of proficiency.
In one way or another, online learning has been with us at least since the advent of the Web in the mid 1990s. But, as the technologies and platforms have continued to improve, the last few years have seen a significant increase in its use. MOOCs represent the more disruptive manifestations of online learning, but other uses look more like incremental extensions of the classic classroom.
Last April, for example, during a visit to the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee (UWM), I learned about UWM’s extensive online program, offering both fully online courses as well as hybrid or blended courses which combine face-to-face classroom with online learning. Other universities and community colleges, have similar programs.
As explained in the UWM website, online learning is a natural extension of their overall educational programs. Students are free to take some courses online, and others in classes on campus. The online program is designed to offer students more flexibility, especially if they work, have family obligations or need to replace travel and on-campus time with online study for whatever reason.
Online class sizes are roughly the same as physical campus classes. Students work closely with the instructor and with other students in the online classroom just as they would in a traditional classroom. There is considerable interaction with the instructor over e-mail and text, as well as over discussion forums. Students collaborate with each other in online group work and team class projects.
In 2014 Udacity will offer an online-only computer science master degree in partnership with Georgia Tech and ATT, which while not as far reaching as MOOCs, further stretches the boundaries of online learning. It will cost $6,600 for a three semester course of study, about one-third of the in-state tuition and one-seventh the cost for out-state students. The course is hosted on the Udacity platform, but otherwise taught and managed by Georgia Tech faculty. Upon completion, students are awarded a Georgia Tech diploma. ATT is underwriting the overall cost of the course, with the hope of expanding the pool of well-trained engineers. While the course is open to anyone, ATT plans to send a large group of its own employees.
A recent NY Times article, After Setbacks, Online Courses Are Rethought, notes that this revised vision, now involving partnerships with companies for a fee, represents a comedown for Udacity from the excitement of the original AI course only two years ago. “Many educators saw the move as an admission of defeat for the idea that online courses would democratize higher education - and confirmation that, at its core, Udacity, a company funded with venture capital, was more interested in profits than in helping to educate underserved students.”
Thrun replied that his commitment to bring high-quality education to everyone is unchanged. Udacity’s current courses are aimed at augmenting, not replacing a traditional education, he says. “To all those people who declared our experiment a failure, you have to understand how innovation works. Few ideas work on the first try. Iteration is key to innovation. We are seeing significant improvement in learning outcomes and student engagement.”
I agree that it’s way too early to give up on MOOCs and other online learning innovations. Let them evolve. Considerable experimentation is now underway. We will discover the potential and limitations of different approaches to online learning. I remain hopeful that, over time, these efforts will significantly expand the number of people with access to quality learning at reasonable costs.