Is the MOOC Era Finally Dead?

I’ve posted about my dislike, distrust, and general hatred of the Massively Open Online Course format before (see here and here), but it seems the once-beloved MOOC has now fallen somewhat out of favor. An article in the December 10 New York Times explains that research has confirmed what we already knew or at least suspected about MOOCs, namely that few students ever actually do the work or complete the courses, and that the “students” enrolling in these MOOCs are overwhelmingly other educators. I’d like to comment on a few particularly interesting tidbits from this article, starting with its title, “After Setbacks, Online Courses Are Rethought.”

-This title is not accurate. The article is not talking about any flavor of “online courses,” it is talking about MOOCs. Why the supposed “paper of record” gets away with such sloppy editing and reporting on such a consistent basis is infuriating.

“Much of the hope — and hype — surrounding MOOCs has focused on the promise of courses for students in poor countries with little access to higher education.”

-I never understood why MOOCs were ever thought of as the answer to this. If students in poor countries have access to the Internet (which is the first obstacle, not the lack of classes), they can learn just about anything already, on their own. In fact, universities can package classes for interested people to download and work through for free, or post interesting lectures for streaming, if they were actually interested in such philanthropic pursuits, which they aren’t. MOOCs can’t solve such a problem.

Next, regarding San Jose State’s disastrous partnership with Udacity and its efforts to offer “low cost” intro courses: “[Professor] Thrun, who had been unhappy with the low completion rates in free MOOCs, hoped to increase them by hiring online mentors to help students stick with the classes.”

-So, because student drop out of MOOCs at a rate even higher than “traditional” online courses (which have a high attrition rate as it is), the solution was to hire MORE staff to help students through the course? How is this sensible? Wouldn’t smaller course sizes and dedicated faculty be a better solution? Nah, that never works. (oh, the article notes that Thrun’s courses failed, as the students nearly all failed the course. According to the reporter, no one at San Jose State would respond to calls for comment!)

“Whatever happens at San Jose, even the loudest critics of MOOCs do not expect them to fade away. More likely, they will morph into many different shapes: Already, San Jose State is getting good results using videos from edX, a nonprofit MOOC venture, to supplement some classroom sessions, and edX is producing videos to use in some high school Advanced Placement classes. And Coursera, the largest MOOC company, is experimenting with using its courses, along with a facilitator, in small discussion classes at some United States consulates.”

-So now that they failed at their original mission, MOOC pushers are just producing content for use IN classrooms? We already have people who do that. They are called professors. Now, the schools are going to just buy content from these companies and show them to students? And if we’re lucky, those students get a facilitator? Wow, education is definitely taking a step forward here.

After noting that Professor Thrun was profiled in Fast Company magazine as he moved toward working with corporations rather than schools, the reporter notes many other educators saw this as “confirmation that, at its core, Udacity, a company funded with venture capital, was more interested in profits than in helping to educate underserved students.”

-WHAT?! I am shocked, shocked at this revelation.

Supporters of Thrun and MOOCs in general are quoted in the article as saying “It’s exciting to see universities saying, ‘Fine, you woke us up,’ and beginning to grapple with how the Internet can change the university, how it doesn’t have to be all about teaching 25 people in a room.” Others thought a recent summer MOOC pilot program went well, though the reporter notes, again, most of the students enrolled already had degrees.

-The Internet can change the university. In fact, it has already done so. We have in class technology that we can use to supplement classroom discussions and lessons. We have online course management systems (like Blackboard or Moodle) that let professors post material in a convenient location for students to find. We have online courses that professors create and teach to reasonably-sized (in ideal conditions, at least) classes of students, with lots of interaction and collaboration. But because Udacity, EdX, Coursera, and others came by with tons of corporate and foundation money (like from the Gates Foundation), all sensible steps were skipped and the hype overcame the reality.

The fast rise and stellar collapsing of MOOCs should serve as a caution to all educators. Technology moves much faster than research or testing. Just because it’s new, doesn’t mean it’s the answer to our problems. And when a “solution” is created to teach “100,000 students” at a time, one should be wary. Our jobs, our work, and our students’ futures might depend on it.

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One Response to Is the MOOC Era Finally Dead?

  1. Michael says:

    I’ll have to read the article and your blog more fully. At the moment one thing jumps out – the fact they were “free” – free is simply not taken seriously, and it’s not surprising to read about the completion rate being so low in that context. And now I am going to go swimming, for which I pay the YMCA $48 per month from my paycheck, so I make sure to use the facilities.

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