Not the year of the MOOC

Last November, the New York Times proudly declared 2012 as “The Year of the MOOC!”  With the emergence of edX, Coursera and Udacity by some Ivy League schools, the Times saw great disruption on the way for higher education.  Earlier in the year, this blog declared that “ivory towers should fear the MOOC!”  In that post, I wrote:

MOOCs have the ability to disrupt traditional higher education as we know it.  When Harvard, Penn, MIT and Princeton start offering their classes online for free, it changes the landscape of admissions and recruitment nationwide.  It’s like a four star restaurant has suddenly popped up in every neighborhood and is offering Filet Mignon for free.

More than a year later, it’s hard to say that any real disruption has occurred.  In some ways, the MOOC may have created more damage for online education than benefits.  A recent article on Inside Higher Education argues that the MOOC may have hurt public perception of online education in general.  In the article, the author cites research from Public Agenda showing that 56% of employers “prefer an applicant with a traditional degree from an average college to one with an online degree from a top institution.”  With its high drop out rates (some reportedly well over 90%), it’s no wonder that the public has soured on the MOOC.  The general perception is that most folks aren’t really getting that Filet Mignon for free.   Instead, they’re getting little more than the hope of a Filet Mignon.  And the crushing realization of failure.

Or at least that’s the way it is being portrayed by the media.  Looking closer at the drop out rate, Hybrid Pedagogy examined the experiences of several learners who had taken MOOCs and published their reflections in an eBook.  One student, writing about her experiences in two online classes, reflected:

I’m a dropout and I’m ok with that. MOOCs offered me the opportunity to show up for a class, and only stay as long as I was still learning.
This presents a very different view of “dropping out.”  In many ways, the opportunities being offered through MOOCs shines a spotlight on the consumer nature of education.  While many of us working in higher education like to focus on the developmental change we offer to our students, the reality is that academia is still a commercial venture.  With MOOCs offering their product for free, the level of commitment and ownership by the consumer is undermined.  When a MOOC student encounters a class that doesn’t serve their needs, they can easily leave without a penalty or negative impact on their future.  As another MOOC dropout writes in the Hybrid Pedagogy eBook,
MOOCs have the potential to offer free education. Yet, in my course I encountered frustrations, dissatisfaction, and monotony.
I wonder how many students in traditional classrooms experience “frustration, dissatisfaction and monotony” but stay in a course because they fear losing their tuition deposit, financial aid, housing and so much more.
I’m not ready to declare the death of the MOOC just yet.  With the high cost of higher education, I doubt that the present model is sustainable.  Maybe the MOOC isn’t the solution to higher education’s sustainability issues but it could evolve into something better.  And this evolution is already happening.  Georgia Tech is currently offering a graduate degree in Computer Science for $7000.  Taught in a massive online format that is no longer open and free, the program is being praised as the next iteration of the MOOC disruption.  Will the program be more successful than a traditional MOOC?  Only time will tell.  But it demonstrates that innovation in higher education will continue as long as the present model isn’t meeting all students’ needs.

One thought on “Not the year of the MOOC

  1. “It’s not what the teacher does that matters; it’s that the students do.” This has been my mantra for at least 15 years of participating in faculty development. The first generation of MOOCs have been very focused in the teacher not on the student, although some have tried.

    There will always be an interest in hearing interesting people talk about subjects in which they are experts. But, this is not that same as teaching. Indeed, a lot of the learning I did in college involved a textbook, a set of challenging problems, and a high stakes test. The faculty lectures were not where the learning happened. Only when students engage in MOOCs in the same way they most students engage in their tuition-supported courses will real learning happen. I think this is possible, but it will be rare in a truly open environment. That most students will not begin such courses looking for that experience will make the traditional measures of success and failure inappropriate.

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