08/19/2013 03:31 pm ET | Updated Oct 19, 2013

MOOC Mania Meets the Sober Reality of Education

Politicians who saw MOOCs as a means to cut the cost of higher education are having to think again after two high-profile initiatives in California recently came to a crashing halt.

The more publicized trainwreck, though arguably the lesser significant of the two, was the partnership between San Jose State University and for-profit MOOC provider Udacity, initiated last January in a blaze of publicity by Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun and California governor Jerry Brown. The public-private agreement called for Udacity to support three remedial classes developed and run by professors at San Jose State.

The potential prize was big: The course fee was a mere $150 per student -- covered by foundation grants for the initial trial -- a fraction of the cost of a regular course. But when the results came in, the euphoria quickly evaporated. The passing rates were 29 percent, 44 percent and 51 percent, respectively, much lower than hoped for. As a result, the university and Udacity have announced that no further such courses would be offered until they had analyzed what went wrong.

To be fair, the project was hugely ambitious. Many of the students had already failed a remedial class or a college entrance exam, and it is not clear they would have done significantly better in a traditional class. It would be just as unwise to conclude that the initiative cannot be made to work as it was to set unrealistically high expectations for what was very much an experiment. The two parties have declared -- rightly -- that the next step is to examine the data (of which MOOCs, by virtue of being online, generate copious amounts, albeit much of it having hitherto unproved value), modify the course structure and try again. That's how progress is made.

The other railcrash, also in California, was the announcement that Senate Bill 520, a controversial piece of legislation seeking to incorporate for-credit, partially-outsourced online education in all three of the state's higher education institutions -- the California Community Colleges, California State University, and the University of California -- has now been put on hold until at least 2014.

Though SB520 was not focused on MOOCs per se, the MOOC explosion had spurred legislators to take a pro-active role to overcome what they felt was too slow a pace by the state's three higher education systems in embracing new delivery technologies to reduce the costs to students. Both Udacity and Coursera were involved in formulating the bill, which also had some high profile support from business leaders. Opposition came from faculty unions as well as the UC and CSU systems. (The CCC system did not publicly express an official opinion.)

As with the SJSU-Udacity project, however, it would be unwise to view the possible-death of SB520 as anything more than the end of phase one of what will be an ongoing process. The idea behind the bill was to tie funds ($16.9M for CCC, $10M for CSU, $10M for UC) to "increas[ing] the number of courses available to matriculated undergraduates through the use of technology, specifically those courses that have the highest demand, fill quickly and are prerequisites for many different degrees."

No one, to my knowledge, thinks that goal is anything but laudable. Governor Brown killed (or at least stunned) the bill -- but not the goal -- by imposing a line-item veto on his own earmarks. Significantly, however, he did not take away the funds. Rather, he left it to the three systems to decide how to use the money in order to assist matriculated students complete degrees at a lower cost. And technology will play a major role in those initiatives.

What both episodes tell us is that, while there may be (I would say there almost certainly are) ways we can use technology to reduce the student costs -- and perhaps the waiting lines to get into courses -- that currently bedevil higher education, last year's naïve predictions of an imminent revolution are being replaced by a more sane attitude, including a recognition that the current higher education faculty have valuable expertise that cannot be ignored or overridden roughshod.

Teaching and learning are complex processes that require considerable expertise to understand well. In particular, education has a significant feature unfamiliar to most legislators and business leaders (as well as some prominent business-leaders-turned-philanthropists), who tend to view it as a process that takes a raw material -- incoming students -- and produces graduates who emerge at the other end with knowledge and skills that society finds of value. (Those outcomes need not be employment skills -- their value is to society, and that can manifest in many different ways.)

But the production-line analogy has a major limitation. If a manufacturer finds the raw materials are inferior, she or he looks for other suppliers (or else uses the threat thereof to force the suppliers to up their game). But in education, you have to work with the supply you get -- and still produce a quality output. Indeed, that is the whole point of education.

In this connection, it is worth noting that the MOOC explosion came out of two of the most prestigious private universities in the world, Stanford and MIT, where the incoming raw material is preselected to be of the highest quality on the planet! The MOOC platforms that form the basis for the for-profit online education companies Coursera, Udacity, and Novo Ed, and the open-source edX, all came from a Stanford research project (called Class2Go) to develop a range of tools to support flipped classrooms for its own, highly-capable, on-campus students. So it was highly unlikely that those platforms would work immediately with less well-prepared students.

The feature of that platform that initially excited Sebastian Thrun, Daphne Koller, Andre Ng and others (myself included) was not using it as a tool to reduce the cost of remedial courses at colleges and universities, rather the possibility of making quality higher education available to the entire world, for free.

That goal has already been achieved -- very effectively for some courses in some disciplines, with other cases being very much works in progress with uncertain outcomes. (The former tend to be introductory-level courses that focus on the assimilation of knowledge and the acquisition of procedural skills, testable by machine-graded quizzes, the latter usually involve higher-order thinking, qualitative judgements and interpersonal activity, requiring human expertise to evaluate.)

But as I have noted elsewhere, it is very much a Darwinian, "survival of the fittest" kind of education, that leaves many by the wayside. In particular, success in a MOOC requires that the student has already learned how to learn -- something that for many students is the principle outcome of a college education.

To my mind, those students around the world whose lives have already been changed by MOOCs (by having access to higher education that would otherwise be unavailable to them) provide reason enough to be pleased with what we have already achieved with this new educational structure, and justifies its continuation.

But what are the benefits for all the rest -- the vast majority of students who, for various reasons, are not able to benefit significantly from taking a MOOC? Indeed, can the technologies on which MOOCs are built offer any benefits at all to the average (or below average) student?

My own view is that there are indeed benefits to be had, but figuring out exactly what they are and how to achieve them is going to take time. In adopting this perspective, I am very much in line with my own university, Stanford, as can be seen in this short video summarizing the current (significant) efforts the university is making in the development, use, and study of educational technologies.

Note that when MOOCs are mentioned in the video, they come up as a final afterthought. In fact, Stanford has already gotten out of the MOOC business, a mere 18 months after they first exploded onto the world scene. The original Class2Go platform has been spun out to the three for-profit companies mentioned above, and Class2Go itself has been folded into MIT-Harvard's edX, to be developed as an open source system.

(To be sure, many Stanford faculty are giving MOOCs on one of those platforms, but they are not offered for Stanford credit and do not lead to a Stanford diploma. Those of us who offer them do so unremunerated, in addition to our normal university duties -- in many cases viewing them as experiments in teaching and learning.)

As indicated in the video, what we are doing is stripping higher education down to its smallest components and seeing how technology can be used to enhance or make more efficient each part, before reassembling them into what may be a new higher education landscape.

Unfortunately for those who write about education, that process is likely to be slow and punctuated by many false starts, with progress for the most part being made in small increments. More evolution than revolution. Just like most other research, in fact.

There will, I am sure, be disruption in higher education. On a local basis, some colleges and universities will go out of business and others (having a different structure) may spring into existence. But, unlike the rapid and dramatic way technology upturned the music industry and journalism, I think that, apart from some changes (such as flipped classrooms), it is only in retrospect that we will recognize the disruption of the entire higher education system.

Keith Devlin blogs regularly about MOOCs at