Are MOOCS a Disappointment or a Gift?

By Leah Belsky & Michal Tsur

We had high hopes for massive open online courses (MOOCs). We wanted them to be the solution to making knowledge accessible to millions and enhancing the way we learn. We hoped they would disrupt the education industry and enable millions to gain university-level credentials without paying hundreds of thousands of dollars. Maybe it’s because we set our expectations too high, or maybe it’s because there’s no magic bullet for improving education on such a large scale. Either way, MOOCs have failed to meet some of our greatest hopes.

A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education revealed that MOOCs aren’t making the grade when it comes to educating users. On average, only about 50 percent of those who registered for a course ever viewed a lecture, and only about four percent actually completed the courses.

So, where are MOOCs missing the mark? In particular, there are three key areas where MOOCs had the opportunity to disrupt the traditional education model but have not yet done so. To be fair to the MOOCs there are also several areas where MOOCs will likely create long lasting value. We highlight these, as well.

Where have MOOCs failed to disrupt?

1. Changing the way knowledge is assessed and credentialed

MOOCs represented an opportunity to transform the economic unit of knowledge from a degree to a course. More specifically, they represented a potential shift where individuals could be assessed and recognized in the economy not just for having full degrees, but also for having completed courses--which still represent a valuable education.

MOOCs never really capitalized on this opportunity, though. As the premier MOOC providers--Udacity and Coursera--built out their business models, they began facilitating relationships where students could get “credit” for their courses. This credit could then be used in a university, should a student be lucky enough to be admitted.

Consider this approach as opposed to creation of an alternative credit, credentialing, or degree system that would allow students to go from course to work without feeding back into the expensive existing university system and forcing students to compete for the same scare resource--the degree. Part of the reason for this may be that the MOOCs themselves are supported by the universities themselves.

2. Increasing access to knowledge

Much of the excitement surrounding MOOCs was they would make quality education accessible to students in poor countries who had little access to higher education. But, a recent survey from the University of Pennsylvania revealed that those taking the university’s MOOCs weren’t the underserved students. Instead, nearly 80 percent of those enrolled had already earned a degree of some type. While additional data is needed, the results thus far suggest that merely opening highly academic courses does not mean they will reach those who are otherwise unable to participate in university education.

Even in areas where MOOCs are making knowledge more accessible, this doesn’t necessarily mean they are successful in enabling knowledge acquisition. Take, for example, the recently publicized pilot courses at San Jose State University. When they introduced mentors to their MOOCs as a way to provide encouragement and accountability, students still performed worse than those who took the classes on campus, with only 12 percent earning a passing grade. Accessibility alone did not enable students to reach university learning standards.

Why have the accessibility goals not yet been reached? The reasons could be many. It may be a reflection of the nature of the content, the difficulty of courses, the lack of pre-requisites in student groups--outside universities. Either way, the recent research suggests MOOC providers must pursue a much more targeted approach if they are to open the ivory towers in a meaningful way.

3. Shifting the focal point of knowledge

In an increasingly pressured economy, there was the promise MOOCs would be used to supplement what is largely an academic university curriculum with soft skills such as leadership and conflict management, or vocational or hard technical skills like web design or programming. MOOCs had the potential to provide courses that taught life skills essential for the job market, even to those who couldn’t afford a full degree.

Instead, many of the early MOOCs focused on hard science university courses like artificial intelligence and programming, with a real academic focus, essentially recreating the university curriculum rather than adding some of the life-based skills that are missing in many classroom experiences.

What then is the role of MOOCS? How have they changed education, and where will they leave a long lasting mark?

Although MOOCs have failed in these three areas, they have gone on to fulfill a different role in modern education. MOOCs have changed the way schools create and share knowledge, opening their eyes to new technologies that can change the way students learn. Ultimately, MOOCs have convinced schools that one of their roles is to actually create a public good of knowledge, and take a more active role in developing a curriculum that takes advantage of the latest technologies to fully engage students.

They have also created an amazing world of open, high quality knowledge that can be consumed by the public and leveraged in many ways.

Where then do we see lasting value?

1. Experimentation

MOOCs provide a valuable opportunity for schools to experiment with new technologies to enhance the way they education their students and study the results, at scale. MOOC participants can test out the use of online video courses and see how their students engage with the content and whether it impacts their overall performance.

Institutions can also use MOOCs to supplement their academic courses with online courses that focus on teaching life skills. This will help to provide students with a truly comprehensive education that prepares them both for their specific career and the real world.

2. Creation of OOCs

Instead of MOOCs, there’s a valuable opportunity to shift to open online courses (OOCs). This content would not aim to replicate a full university course, but instead include many of its riches, allowing people to learn from the courses at their own pace and without any pressure of earning a full degree. It’s also easier to integrate OOCs and use this content as part of many different learning environments both online and on campus.

3. Popularization of Learning

MOOCs had an impact culturally. They enabled people to be lifelong learners and made it “cool” to learn during free time or as part of training for work. Like TED lectures or PBS, they expanded the world of informal learning opportunities right at a time when more and more people are reconsidering the university path and thinking differently about where learning fits in their life (i.e., hobby, self-directed, something needed to get a head, etc.).

4. Continuous creation of high quality open and free academic content, and emphasize the importance of quality teachers.

Educational institutions have always been engaged in creating knowledge, teaching, research and granting degrees. MOOCs have emphasized their important role in exposing and exporting high quality and free knowledge to the public. It actually highlighted the importance of high quality teaching and top teachers (not always the top researchers), which are critical for high quality learning.



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