Monday Musings: The MOOC

6 Jan

The Massive Open Online Course has been touted as the new step in evolution for Higher Education. What is it? Basically just an online course usually free. The idea being that people across the world can take courses from the top minds on academia today. The idea is exciting and seems like it could be transformational. If you follow the news about MOOCs you’ll find there is a lot debate about whether these classes will actually save higher education. I’ve never bought into the idea that the MOOC will work to completely revolutionize higher ed but I love the idea of being able to get an amazing education for free, any time and anywhere. There’s just one problem.

This past weekend I was reading the Fast Company print edition and found an article on Udacity and it’s CEO/Founder Sebastian Thurn. Thurn is considered the father (or grandfather) of the MOOC, he popularized it in 2011 & 2012. As a person who works in Higher Education and who is constantly in discussion about the most successful ways to reach students I was immediately interested. As I said the basic idea behind the MOOC and Udacity’s initial mission really appeals–Help students who may never have access to professors from Harvard or Stanford or any other ivy league get that education for nothing more than the cost of internet and a computer. The article outlines Udacity’s initial work and then it got really interesting. Despite his initial hypothesis about how successful MOOCs would be his data didn’t prove that he was helping the millions of people he was attracting to his courses:

“As Thurn was being praised by Friedman, and pretty much everyone else, for having attracted a stunning number of students–1.6 million to date–he was obsessing over a data point that was rarely mentioned in the breathless accounts about the power of new forms of free online education: the shockingly low number of students who actually finish the classes, which is fewer than 10%.”–From Fast Company

Thus is the problem of the MOOC–millions of students can sign up but only a handful will actually finish and worse only a handful of those will pass the class. I’m proof of this myself. Over the last year I have registered for maybe 20 MOOCs and every single time I have failed to complete them. Not because the subject matter is boring or the professor wasn’t interesting. It’s all a question of  time for me and what Thurn finds is a question of access. He did a study using SJSU students that I think really brings the point home. He created courses for the three levels of remedial math that he hoped would help students have a successful start to their higher education experience. This class wasn’t free but was significantly reduced from the usual SJSU price tag. His results were still pretty bad:

“Among those pupils who took remedial math during the pilot program, just 25% passed. And when the online class was compared with the in-person variety, the numbers were even more discouraging.”–From Fast Company

The medium doesn’t seem to work for students who don’t have consistent access to computers, who have additional pressures at home due to economics and while 86% of students completed the course the passing rates compared to students in the classroom are still sad.  I’d love to see the larger data that he has on this (whether thats possible or not I’m not sure)

So what is the future of the MOOC? I don’t know. I still love the medium. The idea is exciting and it speaks to my own fasination with education on a wide scope but without the buy-in that the physical classroom has (fees, face-to-face accountability, “easy” access etc) will it ever revolutionize education? I’m not sold.



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