Article in Journal ‘Science’ Argues MOOC Participation is Declining as...


Article in Journal ‘Science’ Argues MOOC Participation is Declining as Providers Pivot

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jan 10, 2019

Article in Journal ‘Science’ Argues MOOC Participation is Declining as Providers Pivot

What lessons can be learned from the rise and pivot of massive open online courses (MOOCs), those large-scale online courses that proponents said would disrupt higher education?

An article this week in the prestigious journal ‘Science’ explores that question, digging into six years of data from MOOCs offered by Harvard University and MIT on the edX platform launched by the two universities.

At the start of the MOOC trend in 2012, the promise was that the free online courses could reach students who could not afford or get access to other forms of higher education. The reality, the article points out, is quite different: “The vast majority of MOOC learners never return after their first year, the growth in MOOC participation has been concentrated almost entirely in the world’s most affluent countries, and the bane of MOOCs—low completion rates—has not improved over 6 years.” In fact, completion rates for MOOCs in the study declined.

Initial enrollment numbers—more than 100,000 registrants per course in some of the first MOOCs—made online education seem like the next Google or Facebook. But education is not like search or social sharing.

For one thing, the people best able to succeed in a self-service education model online are those who have experience taking college courses in person and know the drill.

And despite talk of the need for lifelong learning, most people only need a credential at set times in their lives. Most people don’t immediately start new courses immediately after landing a job, after all. That’s what the data seemed to show, at least. For instance, of the 1.1 million learners who signed up for MOOCs from MIT and Harvard between 2015 and 2016, only 12 percent took an additional course the following year.

“There are natural moments to stop taking courses, which is a real challenge for building a business model,” said Justin Reich, director of the Teaching Systems Lab at MIT and a co-author of the article, in an interview with EdSurge.

And since 2016, overall enrollments at the universities’ MOOCs have been declining.

So edX and other providers of MOOCs made a “pivot,” focusing on offering professional certificate programs for those who already have college degrees.

“In light of these trends, financial sustainability for MOOC platforms may depend on reaching smaller numbers of people with greater financial means that are already embedded in higher-education systems rather than bringing in new nonconsumers from the margins,” the authors argue.

So MOOCs have not disrupted higher education.

“The 6-year saga of MOOCs provides a cautionary tale for education policymakers facing whatever will be the next promoted innovation in education technology, be it artificial intelligence or virtual reality or some unexpected new entrant,” the authors argue. “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.”

Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX who has been one of the most vocal proponents of MOOCs, said in an email interview that he still believes the large-scale online courses can help underserved student populations. “For example, entire nations (like Israel, France, Russia, Saudi, Jordan and China) are using MOOCs through Open edX instances to do this and to do it at scale,” Agarwal said, referring to the open source software the group puts out to help other colleges deliver courses at low cost. “However, I also believe that MOOC providers and educators cannot do this alone. This is responsibility that must be shared across governments, policymakers and also, very importantly, corporations and businesses. To solve a societal level problem like the global skills gap, we must come together from all aspects of society.”

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