THE BLOG

The MOOC Experiment

03/18/2015 05:47 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2015

New York Times declared 2012 as the year of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). It was the year when Udacity, Coursera and edX, the three leading MOOC companies, took the education world by storm and promised a lot.

Sebastian Thrun, co-founder of Udacity, proclaimed that in 10 years, job applicants will tout their Udacity degrees. In 50 years, he estimated that there would be about 10 educational institutions in the world providing higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them. Last year he threw in the towel because "the basic MOOC is a great thing for the top 5 percent of the student body, but not a great thing for the bottom 95 percent." Udacity changed its course, from trying to become one of the top 10 institutions in the world, to focusing on corporate and vocational training. Today, Udacity strives to become the online version of DeVry University.

Ananth Agrawal, CEO of edX, predicted that in less than a year one of edX's partner universities would offer a purely online degree. Three years have passed since then and there is no sign of purely online degree from any of its partner institutions. Coursera, founded by two Stanford professors, is by far the largest in terms of the number of courses offered and students enrolled. However just like Udacity and edX, Coursera does not have much to show off in terms of student success rates.

So what is going on? What is the future of MOOC?
Well, MOOCs are going through a maturing process like any other business. Despite all the hype, there is no question that MOOCs are here to stay. MOOCs will transform higher education NOT for the reason that they were originally touted for vis-à-vis the massive number of students enrolling in the class.

What advocates of MOOC have failed to see is that it is not about reaching hundreds of thousands of people. Educating mass numbers of people in higher education quickly and for free is a pipedream. That will never happen for the same reason why most people never achieve their New Year resolutions. According to the University of Scranton research, just 8 percent of people achieve their New Year's goals. This data is consistent with the completion rate of MOOC data. In many ways low completion rates can also be compared to window shopping. Lot of people will like to look at things in the mall but not everyone is willing to pay for it.

When MOOC pioneers declared that they would educate masses from all over the world in very quickly and for free, they were just being academic idealists. It requires time, effort, and lots of dedication and resources to successfully complete a course. Unless there is a compelling reason, no one will follow through homework assignments, quizzes and final exams.

So what is exciting and promising about MOOC?

  1. A 10 percent completion rate still translates into thousands of students, much larger than a regular class.
  2. Even those, who have gone through the course half way through the course, stand to benefit from what they have learned.
  3. There is no substitute for a great teacher who can inspire students but there are not many of them. MOOC provides a platform to offer courses by great teachers.
  4. Anyone can enroll with a simple click of a button in MOOC. No admission process. No fees. This is one of the main reasons for high attrition rates at MOOC but this does democratize education. Anyone with an Internet connection from anywhere in the world can learn almost about anything from an expert in the field, and this is big! MOOC creates a level playing field providing opportunities for those who want to learn.
  5. MOOC is now in the transformation phase, from a large social experiment to becoming a standard. Universities that have been reluctant to do any online courses just a few years ago are now slowly adopting, or even developing their own MOOCs. MOOC is no longer a bad word in the academic circle.
  6. Thousands of students around the world are referring to at least some parts of MOOC during their academic study.
  7. While no one expects universities to go out of business as Sebastian Thrun predicated, MOOCs have forced traditional universities and colleges to rethink their current practices.
  8. New generations of students are using mobile devices for learning, something even early MOOC proponents did not foresee. This new generation of students are not willing to put up with long, boring lectures and lifeless PowerPoint presentations. MOOCs give them choices. Plus they can now hit the pause button.

So what are the challenges MOOCS face today?
Design and development of online courses require careful planning and a lot more efforts than teaching a traditional course. MOOCs must be developed in a way that integrates technology and sound pedagogy. Mere use of technology does not engage students, and most MOOCs are just as boring for this reason.

The biggest challenge for MOOC is the assessment. Conducting proctored exam does not fit the online MOOC model and as of now there is no viable approach to conduct verified online exams. With video streaming and other technology including biometric identification becoming popular, it is only a question of time when students will be able complete all exams online leading to certifications.

Another challenge is engineering and science courses that require conducting experiments and hands-on projects. Virtual experiment are a real possibility but there is no conclusive data if that can replace actual physical experiment.

Finally, learning is not just about pure academics alone. Interacting with other students with diverse cultural backgrounds, club activities, working in group projects and having discussions with a teacher are important part of campus life and it cannot be done effectively online.

What is going to happen in the near future?
Nobody knows what will happen to the three leading contenders today. Enrollments and attrition remain flat. Interestingly, according a Harvard study, people who are benefitting from these courses already have a degree and actually do not need these classes. So current MOOCs are not reaching the people who it is originally supposed to reach.

The immediate beneficiaries of the MOOC experiment, ironically, are those that did not want anything to do with online learning in the first place - universities. With assessment issues unresolved, universities are well positioned to offer a blended learning model, which takes advantage of their traditional classroom sessions for discussion ("flipped classrooms") and assessment while delivering most content online. In addition universities offer all the advantages of a campus experience.

MOOCs have played an important role. They promised a lot and did not deliver much. At the same time, MOOCs have unleashed a force that they cannot control or monetize. The MOOC movement has opened the door for affordable and just-in-time education.