More Recent Comments

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Remember MOOCs?

We learned back in 2012 that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were going to transform higher education. People all over the world, especially in underdeveloped nations, would be able to learn from the best university professors while sitting at home in front of their computers. Several companies entered the market with high expectations of earning enormous profits while altruistically educating students who couldn't afford to go to university.

What happened? I suspect you know the answer since the hype has dissipated and we don't hear much about MOOCs any more. One of the big players in the beginning was the edX platform created by Harvard and MIT. A recent study of that platform highlights what went wrong (Reich and Ruipérez-Valiente, 2019).

There are four main problems ....
  • only a small percentage of students who enrolled in a course ever returned for a second course
  • most students came from the world's most affluent countries
  • course completion rates never rose above 10%
  • course enrolment has been declining steadily after an initial rise from 2012-2015
MOOCs have not been a magical way of providing a university education to the masses, with one exception. Universities have discovered that there's a demand for online master's degree programs for professionals. You can get an MBA degree without ever having to attend a university and the university can charge you a substantial fee without having to hire professors or provide classrooms. The degree is becoming increasingly worthless but universities should be able to milk MOOCs for a few more years.

Some of us aren't surprised by the failure of MOOCs because we lived through two other similar predictions: television in the 1960s, and computers in the 1980s. I suspect that some people thought that radio was also going to provide education for the masses. I suppose that each generation has to re-learn these lessons.

Here's how Reich and Ruipérez-Valiente conclude their analysis ...
The 6-year saga of MOOCs provides a cautionary tale for education policy-makers facing whatever will be the next promoted innovation in education technology, be it artificial intelligence or virtual reality or some unexpected new entrant. New education technologies are rarely disruptive but instead are domesticated by existing cultures and systems. Dramatic expansion of educational opportunities to underserved populations will require political movements that change the focus, funding, and purpose of higher education; they will not be achieved through new technologies alone.

Reich, J., and Ruipérez-Valiente, J.A. (2019) The MOOC pivot. Science, 363:130-131. [doi: 10.1126/science.aav7958]


  1. I think it shows professers are needed. just memorizing things on the internet means the student still must be taught what and how to memorize by the written word. which is the words of a person. If professers only profess words then they are not needed. yet if they really are oganizing thinking of students and punching home important parts and putting it just right THEN they are needed.
    In high school i had to learn by textbooks alone because poor eyesiht made blackboard teaching impossible. it worked for many subjects for a average student howevrr it failed in teaching me english composition/grammer/spelling. The textbook failed and i was ignorant to this day. Indeed ignorant as to its importance in writing and my first idea for profession was journalism. Actually poltical action using it. crazy!
    I think teaching is a skill and self teaching fails to even keep up to average. kids really need help.

    1. In your case, Robert, I am no so sure it was the textbooks that failed.

    2. I feel strange . . . I agree with Robert Byers.

  2. MOOCs are certainly still around and new ones are being created. One thing that has shifted is that more and more are being hosted by institutions themselves rather than through things like Coursera or edX. For instance, I recently took a course on complexity from the Santa Fe Institute where much of that research is done. No, I don't think MOOCs are a replacement for university, but they are quite useful if you want to learn something on your own.

  3. I think it's likely that even where they were first adopted there were strong suspicions they were a waste, since it was exceedingly rare for there to be any college/university credit associated with successful completion. You also need to remember that they quickly came to be seen as another way for institutions to decrease faculty costs: scrape the work of faculty in a discipline to put the structure of the material together, let an outside source package it into delivery software, and automate the presentation.

    Good PR for administrators who could claim to be "lowering education costs". Bad news for faculty.

  4. Despite administrators claiming that such teaching is old-fashioned --- that is stand-up lecturing to a class of students (100 tops) --- there is something that is transmitted between at least a good teacher and a student in such situations that has yet to be replicated by any other process.

  5. An apocryphal story: In the 1920s many universities started radio stations since courses broadcast over radio were going to replace traditional classes. And there has always been the Good Will Hunting model, “You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.”

    The failure of most MOOC students to complete a course is similar to the failure of the Good Will Hunting model. Through centuries of experience, the modern university created an environment that supports and encourages student success. Everything from living on campus to student sports and clubs to the in-class experience contributes to the success rate. My university pays a lot of attention to the 5 year graduation rate and devotes significant resources to improving the rate and keeping it above our competitors. But just like universities incorporate libraries, they are incorporating online education.

    MOOCs are just one way to use the web, meaning Massive and Open, Many universities are exploring "hybrid" courses with both in-class and an online components. I recall a multi-institution NSF proposal that included the idea of teaching a graduate course on the topic at all the institutions simultaneously connected online.

    The example from the music industry is telling. People aren't willing to pay much for recorded music. For $10/month I can listen to every piece of music ever recorded. But we will happily spend hundreds of dollars for the live concert experience. Tickets to a Lady Gaga concert go for $400. Being in the same space as a talented human doing something interesting, even if it is a large sports stadium, is worth paying for.

    The place where massive online courses still show the most potential are for huge undergraduate classes taught by mediocre professors. No one likes freshman physics or biology with 500 students and even a good professor is no Lady Gaga. The students hate it and the professors hate it Everyone works hard to make it work but there is no compelling pedagogical reason for this model. The only reason it exists is that it is cheap, not a complete disaster, and it pays for the 20 student classes that massive online courses will never replace. But if someone figures out how to make a compelling massive online freshman physics, chemistry, or biology course, meaning the right lecturers, the Lady Gaga's of performative education, the right production values, the right assignments, and the right in-person components, it will transform these classes.

    1. The analogy between teaching and recorded music versus live performance is spot on.

    2. @jb

      You are correct. There's no sound pedagogical reason for massive lecture courses. The literature is very clear about the benefits of student centered learning.

      MOOCs could replace these big lecture courses but they would be even worse. What that means is that MOOCs can perpetuate something that we all know is a bad way of teaching. That's hardly a stellar recommendation of MOOCs.

  6. I feel like MOOCs are more like advanced version of books. Great for self learning, but categorically different from Professor-Taught learning. As books, they are quite valuable. I havn't decided whether I learn faster from MOOCs or books, but I think the former should at least be easier to learn from.